Restless leg syndrome sounds like an odd name for a medical condition, but according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, at least an estimated 12 million Americans live with this problem.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is described by sufferers as a constant need to move the legs to lessen painful or uncomfortable sensations when the legs are at rest. These sensations include burning, tingling, or a feeling of insects crawling on the legs. Usually, the sensations aren’t apparent during activity. But when sitting down to relax, or lying down to sleep, the feeling can become unbearable. This is why many people with RLS suffer from insomnia or experience fatigue during the day.
According to the National Institute for Neurological Conditions and Stroke, an international restless leg syndrome group identified these four basic criteria for diagnosing restless leg syndrome:
- A desire to move the limbs often associated with unpleasant sensations.
- Symptoms that are worse or present only during rest and are temporarily or partially relieved by activity.
- Movement restlessness.
- Nighttime worsening of symptoms.
RLS can happen at any age and isn’t gender specific, although it is thought that the incidence in women may be slightly higher than in men. The average affected age group seems to be middle age to older and symptoms seem to increase with age.
As with many conditions, the cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown. Medical literature indicates that a family history of RLS is present in about 50 percent of the cases. In other cases, RLS appears related to conditions such as low iron levels (anemia), kidney failure, diabetes, hypothyroidism, heavy metal toxicity, pregnancy, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, smoking, and the use of certain medications such as certain histamine blockers and certain antidepressants.
If you have restless leg syndrome symptoms, it is important to have your physician rule out these related conditions. Treatment of an underlying cause of RLS may decrease the symptoms, but often most of the conditions aren’t present.
Clinically, many patients with symptoms of RLS also have considerable muscle tightness around the upper legs, buttock, and low back. In many cases, there are postural imbalances, which can put increased strain and pressure on these areas. Compression of the area where the leg meets the torso may add to the symptoms of restless leg syndrome.
A significant number of patients who were treated for back pain, fibromyalgia or other orthopedic problems and also had RLS reported a substantial decrease in their RLS symptoms after postural and pelvic imbalances were resolved. Further study needs to be done on this area.
If you or someone you know has restless leg syndrome, first see your doctor. Then, if associated medical conditions have been ruled out, see a manual physical therapist to evaluate possible musculoskeletal contributing factors for restless leg syndrome.