We all fidget sometimes – chew on a pen, play with a piece of jewelry or – as millions of kids today – with a spinner. It can be hard to remain still, but for some people the unbearable urge to move their legs can turn life into a torment.
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The unscratchable itch
People suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) describe their symptoms as twitching, itching, or aching in their legs, “pins and needles”, as insects crawling inside their muscles, or as an electrical current passing through their calves. In any case, sitting still quickly becomes unbearable – they absolutely have to get up, walk around, run, or massage their legs. The relief is very brief, though, and a few minutes later the itch and pain return. Up to 10% of adults suffer from RLS – yet it is often misdiagnosed as a muscular or nervous disorder. Its causes are poorly understood, and there is no cure.
Restless leg syndrome has several symptoms that allow to diagnose it when they occur together:
- Frequent or constant sensations of aching, twitching, and discomfort in the legs;
- Symptoms are triggered when the person remains still for a while;
- Exercise and massage bring instant but temporary relief;
- Symptoms get worse at night and severely disrupt sleep.
Many people with RLS can hardly sleep – they constantly turn, shift, rub and their legs. This can become unbearable for their partners – RLS has ruined a lot of relationships. It’s difficult to live with a person who cannot sit or lie still and constantly needs massage and movement.
- Dopamine imbalance – a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain is apparently the main cause of RLS, though the syndrome can be triggered by many other factors. Dopamine plays a role in movement, motivation, and feelings of pleasure (see here for a study on dopamine and RLS);
- Genetics – RLS is inherited in circa 50% of cases;
- Iron deficiency – lots of people with RLS are iron deficient, but many are not;
- Pregnancy – it is often accompanied by iron deficiency;
- Certain drugs – medications for common cold, flu, and allergy are known to trigger (though not cause) RLS;
- Excessive levels of glutamate in the brain – a recent study points to it as a possible key to RLS.
Most RLS sufferers are women older than 25, though it can occur in children (in which case it is rarely diagnosed).
Can it be cured?
- Dopamine boosters – usually used to treat Parkinson’s disease, they can help RLS sufferers, but dopamine has side effects – sometimes it causes inability to control impulses (e.g., someone prone to gambling can become a compulsive gambler – learn more on dopamine and addiction);
- Iron supplements;
- Hot or cold feet baths, walking barefoot, a hot water bottle or a cold compress at night;
- Yoga – it’s great for stress management and tension release;
- Going to bed late and getting up late;
- Avoiding coffee.
What if someone in your family has RLS? Be very patient and understanding. Their constant shifting and moving around can be tiring and annoying, but remember – they are not just fidgeting. Restless leg syndrome may not be life-threatening or require a surgery, but it is still a debilitating condition that can make simple things like work and travel very hard. The pain and suffering caused by RLS are constant and very real.