Willis-Ekbom disease, also known as restless leg syndrome (RLS), is a disorder characterized by the uncontrollable urge to move one’s legs. This is often uncomfortable and disconcerting. It can become increasingly irritating as it intensifies at night, preventing or disrupting sleep. These feelings of discomfort and the urge to move or shake suddenly predominantly occurs in the legs, although it can also happen in the arms.1 The sensation is often described as a crawling, creeping, or tingling sensations, and is relieved with the sudden movements of the limbs. As a result, people with restless leg syndrome often have difficulty sleeping, resulting in excessive tiredness throughout the day and impaired judgement, which can negatively affect work and personal life.
There is currently no known cure for restless leg syndrome, but there are many treatments that can help manage it and reduce its impact on your life. This disorder can ebb and flow, often going away for long periods of time. By looking at what causes restless leg syndrome, it is possible to come up with an effective plan for relieving the symptoms.
Restless leg syndrome treatment can vary depending on the severity and longevity of the disorder. The right treatment is dependent on the type of RLS you have and whether it is intermittent, chronic/persistent, or refractory RLS.2
Intermittent symptoms are classified as experiencing bouts of restless movements less than twice a week. Chronic RLS is the occurrence of more than two episodes of restless legs per week. Finally, refractory RLS is when the disorder does not respond to monotherapy and needs a combination of therapies to control it.
Not all cases require pharmacological medications. For those that do, there are some medications that can help with symptoms. Some of the most popular are dopamine agonists, which are also used to treat Parkinson's disease.3 Other common drugs to treat RLS are benzodiazepines and opioids, which are often used for patients who have ongoing issues getting restful sleep when other medications have failed. Additionally, anticonvulsants, which are used to treat epilepsy, can also improve the signs of restless legs.
Help for restless legs comes in many forms including a variety of at home treatments to relieve symptoms. This is particularly beneficial for those who suffer from mild to moderate cases of restless leg syndrome.
Iron deficiency is believed to contribute to restless leg syndrome. Taking a blood test can determine whether you have low levels of iron, and if so, you can take oral supplements to correct this. In some cases, people do not respond well to oral supplements and may need an IV drip containing iron.4 Adding iron supplements to your diet should always be done under the supervision of a doctor.
Basic lifestyle changes can also reduce the impact of restless leg syndrome on your life. Exercising regularly in combination with good sleep habits has been known to decrease the effects of restless legs in many people. For day-to-day relief, hot or cold baths, heat or ice packs, or massaging the leg can help.
In general, restless leg syndrome is a relatively common condition without serious repercussions. However, severe restless leg syndrome can lead to sleep deprivation, which can impact your life to a debilitating point, interfering with your personal life, immune system, work, and overall ability to function. It can be a serious problem that requires a series of medications to keep under control.
Any food or drinks that contain caffeine in them are known to exacerbate the effects of restless legs. On the whole, avoiding foods or drinks that are high in sugar, like chocolate or soda, can minimize the signs of RLS.
There are two types of restless leg syndrome: primary and secondary. Secondary RLS is a byproduct of another medical condition and not a condition in and of itself, while primary RLS is idiopathic. Restless leg syndrome can be triggered by a wide variety of substances and conditions. It can be genetic, a sign of iron deficiency, or a side effect of medications used to treat other conditions, such as antidepressants.5 Pregnancy is one of the most common restless leg causes. RLS can often be intensified by consuming large amounts of caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine.
The onset of restless leg syndrome can occur at any time, and generally does get worse as you age. There are, however, periods of remission where the signs of restless leg syndrome can vanish for a time. It has on rare occasions been known to go away completely, but typically RLS is a lifelong condition.
Certain drugs, including Benadryl, are known to make restless leg syndrome worse. These medications block dopamine receptors in the brain, which intensifies the body’s reactions.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.