When restless legs syndrome first became a topic of discussion in the modern medical field in the 1980’s and 90’s, many scoffed. Characterized vaguely by a mysterious urge to move one’s legs, the condition hardly seemed worthy of scientific attention. However, there have been doctors and scientists from the 1600’s on who have recognized the validity of restless legs syndrome (RLS). According to WebMD.com, some 10% of the population is affected by RLS, and to them this new attention is a relief.
The experience of discomfort typical of RLS is hard to describe; odd sensations occur in the legs that cause the need for movement. The sensation may be of a pins and needles or creepy-crawly variety. It may also feel like a tugging or an itching. The odd sensation is relieved (temporarily) by moving the legs. The sensation and the urge to move occur when the legs are at rest, thus sleep is difficult for people with RLS; The constant need to move the legs keeps patients awake or wakes them up on a regular basis. Occasionally, people present with similar symptoms in the arms.
The exact causes of RLS have not been nailed down, however it is thought to involve a problem in the nervous system that controls limb movement and, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, researchers now believe that either a lack of iron or dysfunction of the brain’s usage of iron may be at the source of the condition. Iron helps to produce dopamine, which is used in turn for a number of functions, including the movement of body parts. See www.ninds.nih.gov for information on studies linking iron to RLS.
Problems with iron can occur due to anemia or to other diseases that interfere with iron production and use, such as kidney failure, Parkinson’s and diabetes. RLS may also be caused by nerve damage; the nerves to the legs may be damaged by diabetes or nerve impingement in the lower back . If you have lower back pain in conjunction with RLS symptoms, consider consulting with a chiropractor or physical therapist to see if you have a joint or muscular cause of nerve interference.
Medications containing antihistamine may cause or worsen RLS symptoms. Antinausea, antipsychotic, antidepressant and calcium channel blocker medications may also cause RLS. Talk with your doctor about any and all medications you use.
If you have an underlying disease or disorder causing RLS, your leg symptoms will be addressed as part of treating the underlying condition. Ways to reduce symptoms naturally include stretching the affected limb(s), massaging the limb(s), taking warm or cool baths or using warm or cool packs. Medication should only be used if symptoms are frequent, unbearable and inhibitory to healthy sleep on a regular basis. Medications don’t cure RLS, and other natural forms of symptom management should be sought alongside them. Medications that mimic or increase production of dopamine may be used. Sedatives or anticonvulsants may be used to calm the nervous system.
Iron supplementation may help relieve symptoms. You’ll need to work with a doctor to determine the amount of supplementation right for you. Taking too much iron can lead to serious health risks, including coma and death.
Until the exact cause and pathology of the condition is understood, restless legs syndrome treatment will remain on the level of symptom management. There are things you can do to improve your situation; opt for natural treatments before medication.