Restless Legs Syndrome: A Very Common Neurological Disorder

Restless Legs Syndrome: A Very Common Neurological Disorder
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Restless legs syndrome is currently one of the most common neurological disorders. It is a very uncomfortable tingling and itching sensation in the legs, and the need to move them to get relief. The condition does not just affect a person’s sleep, but also has a marked impact on their emotions.

The disorder, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, may seem strange and harmless to some people. How can a little tickling sensation in a person’s extremities be considered a “disorder”? How can symptoms that seem so innocuous have a diagnosis?

Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder involving an impulsive need to move your legs. It usually affects a person’s sleep, so it is also considered a sleep disorder.

Those who experience it daily know that it’s not as innocuous as it may seem. For some people, restless legs syndrome is tolerable, but for others it means not sleeping well at night, not being able to sit down during the day, and just feeling irritated and exhausted— both physically and mentally.

So this is no small thing we’re talking about. We’re talking about a problem that affects over 10% of the population. It’s a chronic syndrome that has no cure, but can be treated.

Restless legs syndrome: what are the symptoms?

Restless leg syndrome affects people of all genders, cultures and ages. It is common in small children, although on average it starts for the first time between 40 and 45. Symptoms include:

  • Uncomfortable tingling sensations in the extremities. It is most common in the legs, but it can also appear in the arms.
  • Many patients say it feels like “electrical shocks” while others say that it’s like having ants running under their skin.
  • The problems starts in the afternoon and gets worse at night, especially when the person is resting, whether sitting down or lying down in bed.
  • To alleviate the intense burning or itching sensation, the person tends to move or shake their legs.
  • The symptoms are variable; they go through phases of being tolerable and phases where they feel unbearable. Not being able to sleep can lead to high anxiety levels.

It’s important to mention that these symptoms don’t disappear or weaken. Rather, they tend to get worse.

Restless legs syndrome: a man with insomnia.

Why do I have restless legs syndrome?

Like with many disorders and health problems, the origin of restless legs syndrome is not clear. That said, we do know that there are genetic factors and that the mechanism that triggers these symptoms lies in the nervous system. Relevant factors that have been identified:

  • The circuits that administer and control dopamine in the basal ganglia do not work well.
  • Iron deficiency anemia is another possible factor.
  • Kidney failure and diabetes tend to appear along with with restless legs syndrome.
  • Medications like anti-psychotics, some antidepressants, and antihistamines may have this syndrome as a side effect.
  • Pregnant women may also suffer from restless legs syndrome in the third trimester.

What treatments are there for restless legs syndrome?

At this point we should make a recommendation. If you’ve started experiencing itching or other problems in your legs at night, see your doctor. The origin could be in a circulation problem or you may indeed have restless legs syndrome.

What starts off as a mild annoyance can end up affecting your quality of life and mental health. The insomnia and exhaustion can be a very big problem, so it should be treated as soon as possible.

  • Medication is the primary form of treatment.  These include dopaminergic drugs like ropirinole and anti-epileptic drugs like gabapentin.
  • Getting into good sleep habits is another helpful recommendation.
  • Getting a leg massage can significantly help.
  • There is also a vibrating pillow called “Relaxis” that is very effective for this disorder.
Medication: pills and tablets.

In conclusion, there is not cure, and so treatment focuses on the symptoms. If you have restless legs syndrome, try new  techniques and treatments. Find the approach that works best for you, one allows you to live a normal life and get a good night’s sleep.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.