They arrive soon after you lie down to sleep: strange sensations creeping through your legs. People variously describe the sensations as tugging, pulling, tingling, stinging, throbbing, itching, or aching; others say it feels as if something is crawling or flowing inside their legs.
The sensations produce a near-irresistible urge to get up and move around. This temporarily alleviates the problem, but it returns when you lie back down. It disrupts your sleep, and can disturb your sleeping partner.
Called restless legs syndrome (RLS) or more formally, Willis-Eckbom disease, experts characterize the condition as a neuromotor disorder, and say that for most folks, it’s mild and readily self-managed without medical intervention.
However, for some, RLS can be severe and disabling (primarily because of long-term sleep deprivation). It can also co-occur with serious medical conditions (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological disease such as Parkinson’s disease), which medical experts say should be ruled out when RLS is severe.
But the same experts stress that while a diagnosis of RLS may accompany a serious disease, it doesn’t imply the presence or impending onset of one.
RLS can affect people of any age. It affects women twice as often as men, and is especially prevalent during pregnancy, though in those cases it typically disappears after the baby is born. Some people experience RLS as a chronic condition, either continuous or intermittent, and for those it tends to worsen with age.
Although researchers say RLS involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, http://bit.ly/1Mmsuc7 they don’t understand what causes the condition in most cases. They say it may have a genetic component, may result from iron-deficiency anemia, may worsen in stressful situations, and may be triggered by certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
In recent years, physicians have begun using a broad array of drugs to treat “moderate-to-severe” RLS. There’s also an FDA-approved prescription medical device that helps some people, but can make the condition worse in others.
But relative to drug therapy, researchers say:
- No single drug works for all people.
- None offers a cure.
- Most are recommended for short-term use only.
- Most have serious side effects.
- The drugs can be expensive.
Reviewing a study of current drug treatments for RLS, one medical reviewer noted that even though many people taking these drugs experience short-term relief of RLS symptoms, “Up to 25 to 50 percent with even moderate-to-severe and longstanding symptoms stop taking these medications after more than a year due to either side effects or lack of benefit.”
Underdiagnosed/Undertreated or Overhyped?
Many websites and print articles describe RLS as common, “underdiagnosed and undertreated,” encouraging people who experience the unpleasant condition to seek medical help.
But a 2006 Public Library of Science (PLOS) article, Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick, makse the case that RLS has been overhyped by drug-company marketing campaigns, abetted by media reporting on the topic.They say prevalence of the condition and need for medical treatment has been overstated. They write:
For some people, symptoms are severe enough to be disabling. But for many others with milder problems, these “symptoms” are just the transient experiences of everyday life. Helping sick people get treatment is a good thing. Convincing healthy people that they are sick is not. Sick people stand to benefit from treatment, but healthy people may only get hurt: they get labeled “sick,” may become anxious about their condition, and, if they are treated, may experience side effects that overwhelm any potential benefit.
Natural remedies to try
People who experience RLS have found many home remedies useful for alleviating its symptoms. Here are a few:
- Cold or heat packs applied to the legs.
- Moderate daily exercise, including weight training, with special attention to leg muscles.
- Stretching/massaging legs and feet after exercise and before going to bed.
- A cool shower or warm bath before bed.
- Daily meditation, especially a full or shortened version of the body-scan meditation.
- Good sleep hygiene.
- Going to bed later and sleeping later into the morning. For many, the symptoms abate in the morning hours.
As with drug therapy, research hasn’t shown that any of these remedies can prevent or cure the condition. But they don’t cost anything to try, and aren’t likely to produce dangerous side-effects.