What is it?
Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs. It can also cause an unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs. The sensation is often worse in the evening or at night. Occasionally, the arms are affected too. Restless legs syndrome is also associated with involuntary jerking of the legs and arms, known as periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS).
What are the symptoms?
Restless legs syndrome typically causes an overwhelming urge to move your legs and an uncomfortable sensation in your legs. The sensation may also affect your arms, chest and face, too. It has been described as:
- Tingling, burning, itching or throbbing.
- A “creepy-crawly” feeling.
- Feeling like fizzy water is inside the blood vessels in the legs.
- A painful, cramping sensation in the legs, particularly in the calves.
These unpleasant sensations can range from mild to unbearable, and are usually worse in the evening and during the night. They can often be relieved by moving or rubbing your legs. Some people experience symptoms occasionally, while others have them every day. You may find it difficult to sit for long periods of time – for example, on a long train journey. Just over half of people with restless legs syndrome also experience episodes of lower back pain.
Periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS)
Up to 80% of people with restless legs syndrome also have periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS). If you have PLMS, your leg will jerk or twitch uncontrollably, usually at night while you’re asleep. The movements are brief and repetitive, and usually occur every 10 to 60 seconds. PLMS can be severe enough to wake up both you and your partner. The involuntary leg movements can also occur when you’re awake and resting.
What to expect?
If you are diagnosed with restless leg syndrome, you can consider discussing the following subjects with your doctor after the initial treatment:
- Patients with restless leg syndrome are often managed by determining the cause of the condition. You can ask your GP what causes your restless leg syndrome? And, what treatment options are recommended? If necessary, what diagnostic investigations may help determine the cause of your restless leg syndrome?
In addition to treatment by your doctor you can try the following things:
- Try baths and massages. Soaking in a warm bath and massaging your legs can relax your muscles.
- Apply warm or cool packs. Use of heat or cold, or alternating use of the two, may lessen your limb sensations.
- Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga. Stress can aggravate RLS/WED. Learn to relax, especially before bedtime.
- Establish good sleep hygiene. Fatigue tends to worsen symptoms of RLS/WED, so it’s important that you practice good sleep hygiene. Ideally, have a cool, quiet, comfortable sleeping environment; go to bed and rise at the same time daily; and get adequate sleep. Some people with RLS/WED find that going to bed later and rising later in the day helps in getting enough sleep.
- Exercise. Getting moderate, regular exercise may relieve symptoms of RLS/WED, but overdoing it or working out too late in the day may intensify symptoms.
- Avoid caffeine. Sometimes cutting back on caffeine may help restless legs. Try to avoid caffeine-containing products, including chocolate and caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea and soft drinks, for a few weeks to see if this helps.