How to Manage Restless Leg Syndrome
What can you tell me about restless leg syndrome? I'm 58 years old and frequently have jerky, uncontrollable urges to move my legs, accompanied by a tingling sensation. This keeps me awake at night.
If an irresistible urge to move your legs has you kicking in your sleep, then chances are pretty good you have restless leg syndrome (RLS), a condition that affects 7% to 10% of Americans. Here is what you should know.
RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a nervous system problem that causes uncomfortable sensations (often described as a creepy-crawly feeling, tingling, itching, throbbing, pulling or aching) and an irresistible urge to move one or both legs while you are sitting or lying down. The symptoms usually get worse with age. It typically occurs in the evenings or at night while resting. Moving around often eases the unpleasant feeling temporarily.
While RLS is not a life-threatening condition, the main problem, other than it being uncomfortable and annoying, is that it disrupts sleep. This can lead to daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and even depression.
The exact cause of RLS is not known, but researchers suspect it could be linked to several things, including iron deficiency, an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine and genetics — about 60% of people with RLS have a family member with the condition.
While there is no cure for RLS, there are things you can do to alleviate the symptoms. Depending on the severity of your case, some people turn to RLS medications like gabapentin enacarbil (Horizant), anticonvulsants or dopamine agonists, like ropinirole (Requip), rotigotine (Neupro) or pramipexole (Mirapex). Be aware, however, that these drugs can have side effects, including nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue and insomnia. Also be aware that, while these medications can provide short-term relief, they can also make symptoms worse for many people who use them long term.
So before turning to medication, you may want to consider some of the following natural RLS treatments first, which can be very effective for many people.
Check your iron levels. Iron deficiency is believed to be one of the major contributors to RLS, so make an appointment with your doctor and get a blood test to check for this. If you test positive for iron deficiency, your doctor may recommend iron supplements.
Exercise: Getting moderate, regular exercise — like walking, cycling, water aerobics and yoga — can relieve symptoms. Be aware, however, that overdoing it or exercising late in the day may intensify symptoms. Daily leg stretches — including calf, hamstring, quadriceps and hip flexor stretches — are also helpful.
Check your medications: Certain drugs, including antinausea drugs, antipsychotic drugs, some antidepressants and cold and allergy medications containing sedating antihistamines, can make RLS worse. If you take any of these, talk to your doctor to see if something else should be prescribed.
Avoid triggers: Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and refined sugar can all make RLS symptoms worse.
Try these tips: Soaking in a hot bathtub and massaging your legs can relieve symptoms, as can applying a hot pad and/or ice pack to your legs. Pressure can also help, so consider wearing compression socks or stockings. There's also a new non-drug FDA approved vibrating pad on the market called Relaxis that interrupts RLS episodes and may provide relief.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.