Dr. Rosenberg, “I hoping you can help me with this very unusual problem. Recently I’ve been experiencing a tingling and burning in my legs. It’s like a snake is crawling up and down the inside of my calves and it even worse when I’m trying to sleep! It so frustrating that sometimes I just want to scream. The only relief I get is when I’m up and walking around. What’s wrong with me?”
Judy Harris, Los Angeles, CA.
This question is asked of me by more patients than you might imagine. What this individual has just described is known as Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and it affects as many as 12 million people in the country, both men and women. It’s a condition that can leave you feeling tired and irritable from a lack of restful sleep. It can make you feel like you’re going out of your mind—though, I assure you, you’re not.
The symptoms can be mild to incapacitating but do not lead to other serious conditions. RLS can develop as early as childhood but gets worse as you get older. Scientific studies have found a link between RLS and heart disease from the standpoint that if you experience RLS symptoms every night you are more likely to develop heart disease than those who do not have RLS.
Researchers balanced results for many other possible factors, but the link between RLS and heart disease remained strong. Other research shows that RLS can lower your quality of life as much as other chronic conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, for example.
You can see why it is important to get help for RLS. However, many people don’t recognize they have it until 10-20 years after symptoms appear. The good news is that once it is correctly diagnosed RLS can often be treated successfully.
The Cause of RLS a Mystery
No one seems to know for sure what causes restless leg syndrome but researchers suspect it may be due to an imbalance of a chemical in the brain known as dopamine. This is the chemical that sends movement messages to the muscles in your body.
There are also other factors that contribute to the development of RLS such as heredity, stress, or hormonal changes during pregnancy. Sometimes RLS is a symptom related to other serious medical problems; kidney failure, iron deficiency, and damage to the nerves in your hands and feet due to diabetes.
In some cases, restless leg syndrome just starts with no reason at all and is thought to be a neurological movement disorder. RLS also seems to be linked to depression; however anti-depressant drugs prescribed for the treatment of depression tend to make RLS worse.
Typical symptoms include an uncomfortable or even painful feeling in your legs. The feelings of discomfort intensify at night or when you are inactive. Moving the legs relieves the discomfort, at least temporarily.
Lifestyle Changes May Relieve RLS
If any of the symptoms sound familiar to you, consult your doctor to discuss what can be done to alleviate your discomfort. Many times all it takes is a few lifestyle changes to make all the difference in putting a stop to that awful feeling in your legs. Here are a few simple things you can try on your own:
• Over the counter pain relieving medication may help to relieve the twitching and painful sensations.
• Soaking in warm baths and massages help to relax your muscles.
• Alternating hot and cold packs may lessen the sensation of crawling in your legs.
• Deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques help you relax before going to bed.
• Improve the quality of your sleep by going to bed at the same time, rising at the same time, in a comfortable sleeping environment.
• Exercise moderately – do not overdo it or exercise too late in the day.
• Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco as these substances may trigger RLS symptoms.
Research is still being done to determine the benefits of diet and natural remedies as an aid in the relief of RLS. However there are a few supplements that are thought to be of help.
• The first is folate. Research has discovered that low folate levels in pregnant women can contribute to restless leg syndrome. This research demonstrates that an increase of a folate supplement can improve neurological and might help with restless leg. It is recommended that you take a 400 microgram supplement of folic acid each day.
• Magnesium and zinc may also help. Your body needs magnesium to promote proper nerve function. It uses zinc in many of its cellular functions. Men need around 400 mg of magnesium a day, and women need around 300 mg. I recommend 30 mg of zinc a day. It’s a good idea to combine your zinc intake with 2 mg of copper to prevent copper deficiencies.
Restless leg syndrome is a real condition that can leave you feeling tired and makes you vulnerable to depression and heart disease. While the disease is not yet fully understood, it may be caused by deficiencies in important nutrients. Changes to your lifestyle could make a difference in how your body reacts to stress. Talk to your doctor about the treatment that is best for you. Natural remedies may be just what your body needs to quiet your legs so you can get a good night’s rest.