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Restless Legs Syndrome. Sleeping In Bed

Restless legs syndrome: Causes, treatment & signs

17 Jan 2023 • 5 min read

It’s been a long day and you’re heading to bed… but no matter how tired you are, your legs just can’t seem to settle down with you. 

Sound familiar? You might be experiencing restless legs syndrome (RLS). Like any sleep disorder, RLS can impact your waking hours too, and leave you feeling fatigued, unmotivated, and generally unlike yourself.  

Learn more about what causes restless legs syndrome and what can help treat it, so you can sleep easy at night and stay on top form during the day.  

Skip to: 

What is restless legs syndrome? 

Officially known as Willis-Ekbom disease, restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a nervous system disorder that creates an overwhelming urge to move your legs. It can also be known as ‘twitchy legs” or tired leg syndrome.  

You might feel a “creeping” or itching sensation or need to stretch or move around, even if you’ve recently been active.  

There are two types of RLS:

Primary (idiopathic) RLS

 

Secondary RLS

 

Symptoms of restless legs syndrome 

Different people describe restless legs syndrome in different ways. Put simply, it’s when you get restless legs at night.  

  • “Pulling”, “itching”, “aching”, and “burning” are all ways you might explain what’s going on: that’s why it’s also known as “irritable leg syndrome”.  
  • Sometimes, it can also affect your arms, chest, or face. ¹ 
  • More than 80% of people with RLS will also have periodic limb movements disorder (PLMD), where you twitch suddenly – usually when you’re drifting off to sleep (more on this later!).¹ 

These symptoms might happen occasionally or every day. They might be mild or unbearable.  

How else could RLS affect me? 

At best, RLS is annoying and could interrupt a good night’s sleep. 

In more severe cases, or over time, it could have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health.  

  1. Mental health

Although anxiety might be a trigger for your restless legs syndrome, it can also work the other way around, too.² 

It could cause you to experience anxiety in other situations outside your normal bedtime routine.

For example, you could become nervous in public situations because of your RLS, such as worrying about seeming “professional” in an important meeting or being concerned about sitting on public transport for extended periods. 

RLS could also cause somebody to experience depression if their sleep is affected for a long time. It can be hard to explain restless legs syndrome, so some people may feel alone.  

  1. Insomnia  

Most people with RLS experience it at night when they’re trying to sleep.  

Sleep deprivation can affect you more than feeling a little tired. Over time, it can affect your memory and increase your likelihood of developing chronic illnesses.

Slower reaction times could also mean you’re less safe while driving or out and about.  

Not only do your restless legs at night make it difficult to get to sleep, but they can impact your sleep quality once you’ve drifted off.  

One study found that, once patients were asleep, they slept 13% less efficiently. People without RLS achieved a mean sleep efficiency score of 86.6%, while those with RLS had 73.2%.³ 

People with RLS also woke up more, with an average of 12 times per night.³ 

Just like anxiety, insomnia can affect your work and social life and leave you feeling unlike yourself.  

We’re also less healthy with a lack of sleep: our cognitive functioning, immune system, heart health, and hormone levels all suffer the effects.⁴ 

Handpicked content: The importance of sleep  

Whos likely to get restless legs syndrome? 

Twitchy legs are fairly common: RLS affects 5-10% of adults and about 2-4% of children.5,6 

Anyone can have it and it can develop at any age.

However, certain demographics are more at risk – for example, it’s more common in middle aged people.  

Young men and women are equally likely to experience restless leg syndrome.

But the older women get, the more likely they are to develop it than men are. This statistic could be down to pregnancy, though, since you’re more likely to have RLS if you’re pregnant.  

Restless legs syndrome causes

You’re pregnant

 

You’re iron deficient

 

It runs in the family

 

You have a long-term health condition

 

What’s the difference between RLS & PLMD?

As mentioned earlier, RLS could also occur alongside a similar condition - periodic limb movements disorder (PLMD). PLMD refers to periodic, repetitive movements of the legs and feet during sleep.

PLMD symptoms include muscle twitches, jerking movements, cramping, or twitching of the lower limbs.

This differs from RLS as PLMD provokes more rhythmic and repetitive movements, whereas RLS refers to an irresistible urge to move your legs.

With PLMD, the individual also may not know they have the sleep disorder – their limbs move without their control, so they may wake up feeling fatigued not understand why.

Restless legs syndrome treatment 

You might have seen a whole range of tricks and home remedies to provide instant relief for restless legs, such as massaging your legs, taking a hot bath, or going for a walk.

But unfortunately, it seems that these home remedies work for some and not others. 

Depending on whether you have primary or secondary RLS, your GP may advise one or more of the following: 

  • Lifestyle changes  
  • Medication 

Lifestyle changes

Practice sleep hygiene

 

Evaluate your daily habits

 

Treating an underlying health condition 

It’s always ideal to practice the healthy habits above. But your restless legs might be down to other health conditions.  

Iron supplements

 

Iron-regulating medication

 

Dopamine-regulating medication

 

Magnesium supplements for RLS

 

Heat and pressure

 

Painkillers

 

The final say 

To summarise: 

  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is the uncontrollable and/or uncomfortable need to move your legs 
  • It most often happens when you’re in bed at night or sitting still for long periods 
  • You might experience pain, tingling, discomfort, or hot feet and restless legs at night 
  • RLS affects about 5-10% of the adult population - though you’re more susceptible the older you get, or if you’re pregnant 
  • It’s classified as a sleep disorder and can affect other areas of your life, like your mental health 
  • The cause of your RLS could be due to your lifestyle or another health condition you have 
  • Cutting down caffeine, practising good “sleep hygiene”, quitting smoking, and exercising regularly can all help with the triggers of RLS 
  • Your RLS may also benefit from magnesium or iron supplements if you’re deficient
  • RLS treatment is usually a combination of lifestyle changes and medication or supplements, but you should always speak to your GP first

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 17 January 2023

Sources

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/restless-legs-syndrome/ 
  2. https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-disorders/symptoms/anxiety-and-restless-leg-syndrome/ 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671944/ 
  4. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/10-ways-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-health/
  5. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/restless-legs-syndrome# 
  6. https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/restless-legs-syndrome/background-information/prevalence/ 
  7. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/restless-legs-syndrome/#inheritance 
  8. https://www.kidneycareuk.org/about-kidney-health/living-kidney-disease/physical-health/restless-legs-syndrome/ 
  9. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/diabetes-complications/restless-leg-syndrome.html 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952743/ 
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3694367/ 
  12. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia/ 
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952755/ 
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805807/ 
  15. https://www.healthline.com/health/restless-leg-syndrome/sleep-tips#1 
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9703590/ 
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3775240/ 
  18. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/127/1/33.long 
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5452159/#B46-nutrients-09-00429 
  20. https://restlesslegssyndrome.sleep-disorders.net/living/soap-home-remedy 
 
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