You have a hard time sitting still at night – literally getting up to walk around your bedroom – and your spouse teases you that you “have ants in your pants.” But it’s not that simple. You get up to walk around because it makes the pain in your legs go away, but only temporarily. What’s going on? You may have restless legs syndrome.
What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that triggers an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, “usually because of an uncomfortable sensation.” It typically happens during the evening or nighttime when you’re resting or lying down. You may find that movement eases the pain, but only temporarily. RLS is also called Willis-Ekbom disease and can start at any age and often worsens as you age. It can trigger sleep problems and interfere with daily life.
RLS and Other Conditions
RLS may be accompanied by other illnesses and conditions, including:
- Peripheral neuropathy, commonly known as nerve pain. This injury to the nerves in your hands and feet, and may be caused by chronic diseases like diabetes and alcoholism.
- Iron deficiency can cause or worsen RLS.
- You have experienced kidney failure. When kidneys don’t work as they should, iron supplies in the blood can be reduced. Body chemistry and other changes may cause or worsen symptoms of RLS.
- Spinal cord conditions.
- Parkinson’s disease.
What Causes RLS?
In most cases, we don’t know what causes restless legs syndrome. However, RLS has a genetic influencer and can be observed in families where the symptoms usually start before age 40. Certain gene variants are linked to RLS, specifically PTPRD, BTBD9, and others. Researchers also surmise that low levels of iron in the brain can trigger RLS, and that dysfunction within the section of the brain which controls movement, the basal ganglia, and the use of brain chemical dopamine, is another possible cause.
Self-Help Strategies for RLS
- See a healthcare provider to rule out another medical problem.
- Try to improve your sleep habits and get more sleep each day.
- Eat healthily to get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs. People who lack iron and vitamin D in their diets may be susceptible to RLS.
- Consider the benefits of ketamine infusion therapy to treat symptoms of RLS.
- According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, regular moderate exercise can ease pain related to RLS.
Knowing if you Have RLS Depends on the Symptoms
Symptoms to watch for:
- Sensations that begin while resting. The sensation typically begins after you’ve been lying down or sitting for an extended time, such as in a car, airplane, or movie theater.
- Relief with movement. The sensation of RLS lessens with activity, such as stretching, jiggling the legs, pacing, or walking.
- Worsening of symptoms in the evening. Symptoms occur mainly at night.
- Nighttime leg twitching. RLS may be associated with another, more common condition called periodic limb movement of sleep, which causes the legs to twitch and kick, possibly throughout the night, while you sleep.
Can you self-diagnose?
You know your pain better than anyone, so there’s a possibility you may be able to arrive at minimal self-diagnosis to help your doctor recommend a treatment plan to reduce the symptoms. Self-diagnosis depends on:
- Sleep quality questions, such as when and where you fall asleep, how much sleep you get, and whether you sleep comfortably.
- Ask yourself RLS-specific questions, including when you have an urge to move your legs, and when the pain happens most often.
- Lifestyle questions. Are there certain foods or medicine which appear to worsen RLS symptoms? Is there any kind of exercise that seems to lessen the pain?
Diagnosis & Treatment
If you’re convinced that you have restless legs syndrome, the next logical step is to see your healthcare provider for a medical diagnosis. Your clinician will perform a physical examination to rule out another potential medical problem that might explain your symptoms, but will focus on the pain as you describe it. You’ll be asked many screening questions to help inform diagnosis, especially related to an irresistible urge to move your legs in the past week, description of the pain sensation, any medicine you may be taking, and personal and family history of RLS. Your healthcare provider can offer specific treatment options after diagnosis but be sure to ask about all your options.
Treatment may involve pain medicine and muscle relaxers, physical therapy, and newer options like ketamine therapy from specialty clinics.