Restless Legs Syndrome doesn’t sound like a particularly uncomfortable or debilitating condition, but for the 1 in 10 of the UK population thought to suffer, it can cause untold misery and lead to a range of other medical problems including anxiety, depression and even heart health.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease and although it’s a neurological disorder it’s often classed as a sleep condition as it is at bedtime that the symptoms tend to be most acute.
Sufferers usually have an irresistible desire to move, twitch or jerk their legs due to a creeping sensation in their feet, calves and thighs or an unpleasant crawling feeling on their skin. Some describe it as a fizzing sensation or an itch which can’t be scratched.
The symptoms are usually worse at night but some will have the same problem in the day and for others it’s not limited to the legs and feet but can be felt in other parts of their body including arms and head. When the effected part of the body is moved there is a brief respite from the sensation, but it will almost immediately return.
These feelings typically intensify when the person is in a relaxed state – which is why bedtime is the worst time for so many. Other people find when they are sitting down, especially in a confided space, they also suffer.
The constant need to move can mean those with the condition don’t get enough sleep and therefore find it hard to function the next day and the stress can cause psychological problems. “The disruption in sleep can have consequences on weight, concentration and even heart health,” says nutritionist Sarah Flower. “RLS leads to poor sleep quality and this is a contributor to stress and anxiety.”
Different people will experience different severity of symptoms so while some may find they have limited problems just at night, others can be in agony all day. ‘Some can become suicidal,’ says Professor Kailash Bhatia, an expert in movement disorders. ‘They tend to be the ones who don’t respond to medication, and we don’t know why some respond and others don’t.’
It’s the fact that scientists have yet to identify exactly what causes RLS and why certain people get it which makes treatment difficult. The most popular theory is that RLS is the result of low dopamine, a brain chemical which controls muscle activity and movement. It can also sometimes be caused by an underlying medical condition too – almost half of people with kidney disease will also have RLS. Other diseases linked to RLS include fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disorders, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and rheumatoid arthritis so it is worth mentioning you have the condition to your doctor even if it is not severe and you are managing the symptoms yourself.
Two types of RLS have been identified: a primary form which is progressive, has no known cause and can also be hereditary. It’s mainly seen in women over 40 though often the episodes will have usually started before the age of 45. While the symptoms worsen with age, they can also disappear for a while before returning.
Secondary RLS often has its origins in another conditions, for example a deficiency in magnesium or iron or as a side effect from other medications. “Antidepressants, SSRI’s, Tricyclic medications, antacids, antihistamines and cold and flu remedies, can make the symptoms worse or even contribute to RLS,” says Sarah. About one in five pregnant women also develop the condition, most commonly in the third trimester and can still have symptoms after childbirth.
The fact that this is an often misdiagnosed or unrecognised condition means years for some people to get the right treatment. But there are a wide range of approaches which means most people find something which gives them the relief they crave. Identifying the root cause of an individuals symptoms is key. Increasingly research is showing how mineral deficiencies can cause secondary RLS. Magnesium has been singled out as something lacking in some RLS sufferers and an aid to many experiencing the symptoms.
The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that although we should consume 375mg per day of magnesium, men take in 283mg a day on average, while women get just 226mg.
“It is recommended that you try and increase your intake of magnesium to help RLS, for example consuming foods such as green leafy vegetables, yoghurt, nuts and dark chocolate,” advises Sarah.
It’s worth noting that magnesium is one of the 17 scientifically-targeted ingredients in the Lumity supplements.
In some sufferers an iron deficiency is to blame and iron supplements will help. But Dr Mark Buchfuhrer, an expert in the condition, explains it’s important to look at a blood test for ferritin which is a protein that binds to iron helping us store it and not just levels of iron itself.
“If you check just hemoglobin or iron levels, that doesn’t reflect the stores,” Dr Buchfuhrer says. “The other numbers may be normal, but you need the serum ferritin to understand the iron stores.” A normal serum ferritin is greater than 10 to 20, but he advises RLS sufferers have at least 50 to 75. To reach this sometimes he says an intravenous iron infusion can be helpful.
A change in lifestyle can help reduce symptoms for many too. Reducing caffeine, alcohol and staying well hydrated help as well walking and stretching exercises in the day or heat therapy with heat pads.
Simply sleeping with a pillow between the legs in a room which is not too hot will make some sufferers feel more comfortable and able to sleep, or using a foot wrap which puts pressure on specific muscles in the feet can create a response in the brain that relaxes the muscles activated during RLS. There are medicines which can help RLS sufferers who don’t find relief though any of these means.
This is intended as a guide only. If you’re worried about your health then always consult your doctor, or a medical professional in person.