Unlike the girl in the Bruce Springsteen video,  dancing in the dark with Restless Legs Syndrome is no fun for the person experiencing 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.

woman on couch massaging left leg

What causes Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?

In the majority of cases, there’s no obvious cause of restless legs syndrome.

This is known as idiopathic or primary RLS, and it can run in families.

Some neurologists believe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine.

Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with RLS.

In some cases, restless legs syndrome is caused by an underlying health condition, such as iron deficiency anaemia or kidney failure. This is known as secondary restless legs syndrome.

Who is affected by RLS?

Restless Legs Syndrome is a common condition that can affect anyone at any point in their life, but women are twice as likely to develop restless legs syndrome as men.

pregnant woman cradling bellyThere’s also appears to be a link between RLS and pregnancy. About 1 in 5 pregnant women will experience symptoms in the last 3 months of their pregnancy, although it’s not clear exactly why this is. In such cases, restless legs syndrome usually disappears after the woman has given birth.

It’s also more common in middle age, although the symptoms can develop at any age, including childhood.

RLS Symptoms

The main symptom of restless legs syndrome is an overwhelming urge to move your 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.

pair of feet exposed in blue bedsheets

Restless Legs Syndrome is also associated with involuntary jerking of the legs and arms, known as periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS).

Some people have the symptoms of restless legs syndrome occasionally, while others may have them every day. The symptoms can vary from mild to severe. In severe cases, restless legs syndrome can be very distressing and disrupt a person’s daily activities.

Treating RLS

Mild cases of restless legs syndrome that are not linked to an underlying health condition may not require any treatment, other than making a few lifestyle changes.

These include:

  • adopting good sleep habits (for example, following a regular bedtime ritual, sleeping regular hours, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine late at night)
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • exercising regularly during the daytime

 

If your symptoms are more severe, you may need medication to regulate the levels of dopamine and iron in your body.

If restless legs syndrome is caused by iron deficiency anaemia, iron supplements may be all that’s needed to treat the symptoms.

Common Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome

The symptoms of restless legs syndrome will usually disappear if it’s possible to address an underlying cause.

But if the cause is unknown, the symptoms can sometimes get worse with time and severely affect the person’s life.

Restless legs syndrome is not life threatening, but severe cases can disrupt sleep, leading to insomnia and triggering anxiety and depression.

Medications and behavioural therapy can also be helpful in treating RLS.