Body parts sometimes seem to have a mind of their own. Like that time when you walked sixty miles through the snow to a chocolate shop without even thinking about it. Or that time your elbow jumped out of its own accord and jabbed your co-worker in the ribs during a disagreement at the office water cooler. For some people, these independent body movements or impulses don’t affect much. Unfortunately, those who have restless leg syndrome may find that they grow tired of this bodily autonomy thing.
Restless leg syndrome (or RLS) doesn’t really mean that your legs get up and carry you off without your brain’s direction. It does mean, however, that you’ll experience unpleasant sensations or simply an uncontrolled urge to move your legs. This usually happens when you’ve settled down for a rest and, naturally, often leads to sleep disruption, difficulty while traveling or sitting for other activities (like watching a movie in a theatre).
RLS tends to be a progressive disorder, and tends to affect older individuals more than the young (although people of any age can have the disorder). Women are also a little more likely than men to have restless leg syndrome, and there’s a strong genetic link for the syndrome: RLS tends to run in families. There is no known cure, although there are treatments available to ease symptoms.
Although it isn’t certain what causes RLS, it’s suspected that the disorder is related to lower than usual levels of dopamine in the brain. (Dopamine helps produce smooth muscle movement.) RLS may also be related to having certain other conditions, such as iron deficiency, neurological problems such as diabetes (particularly those with peripheral neuropathy) or Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, and being pregnant (particularly during the last trimester). Some medications might also influence the development of RLS, including some antiseizure, antipsychotic and antinausea medications, as well as some cold and allergy medicines. Using or consuming tobacco, caffeine or alcohol may also make your symptoms worse.
Restless leg syndrome often goes unnoticed during the daytime, or when you’re active and up and doing things. However, when you stop all your activity and sit or lie down for prolonged periods of time (especially in the evening or at night), you may begin to notice crawling sensations, itchiness, burning, aching, cramping, electric sensations, or other feelings of tension and discomfort. Or you may just feel the urge to move or touch your limbs. (Sudden urges to dance an Irish jig may also occur, although they’re much less common.) These sensations often occur deep in the legs (usually somewhere on the lower half of the leg), although they can be felt in the feet, thighs, arms or hands as well. Because the symptoms are often relieved by movement, you might find temporary relief by jiggling your leg, walking around, stretching or exercising.
Many people with RLS also have a condition known as periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS) or periodic limb movements disorder (PLMD). (Yes, namers of disorders are very fond of acronyms.) This other condition means that during sleep your limbs flex and twitch without your conscious control. Having PLMS often doesn’t affect sleep patterns if the limb movement isn’t rigorous. However, restless leg syndrome itself may significantly interrupt your sleep, making it difficult to perform normally the next day at work and other activities.
So if you know you have this syndrome you can blame your hitting of your coworker or kicking of the annoying animal nipping at your heels to RLS. And you didn’t think there was an upside to having RLS.