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Restless legs syndrome

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 5 minutes read
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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is where you get an irresistible urge to move the legs that is difficult to overcome. It can affect women twice as commonly as men but can affect any person at any age although it tends to be more common the older you are. It is surprisingly common with some estimates suggesting that up to 1 in 20 of the population can be affected at some time.

What are the causes of restless legs syndrome?

Primary (idiopathic) restless leg syndrome

When there is no obvious cause, which is the case with the majority of cases of restless leg syndrome, it is known as primary or idiopathic restless legs syndrome, and this type of RLS can run in families.

Secondary restless legs syndrome

Secondary restless legs syndrome is when an underlying condition seems to be causing the condition. Common causes include:

It can also be a side effect of certain medications (such as antidepressants, beta blockers and antipsychotics).

It is also a common symptom during pregnancy, affecting up to 1 in every 4 of pregnancies in the final trimester (29 - 40 weeks). The symptoms often get better shortly after delivery.

What are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome is a very unpleasant condition in which you get an irresistible urge to move your legs, and it can also create an unpleasant feeling of something crawling or irritating your lower legs. It is difficult to stop or settle and the symptoms are often worse at night or when lying down. Symptoms typically come and go and affect both legs, being temporarily eased when standing or moving the legs around.

It is easy to understand how these symptoms can be really distressing for individuals as they feel there is nothing you can do to stop them from happening or to make them go away. Occasionally, it can be related to a condition known as 'periodic limb movement disorder' during sleep, which is sudden uncontrollable jerking of the legs or arms.

How long do restless legs syndrome symptoms last?

Restless legs syndrome is commonly a lifelong condition. There is no cure, although there are various management techniques and therapies that are used to try and reduce the symptoms and disturbance to daily function.

What are the treatment options?

Primary restless syndrome, which cannot be attributed to any underlying medical condition and can be difficult to treat, although milder cases can eased significantly by the following:

With secondary restless legs syndrome, it is best to treat the condition causing the RLS first to see if it helps to resolve the symptoms. On occasion, medication that increases the effect of dopamine can be prescribed by your GP to increase the levels of this in the body since restless legs syndrome can be associated with low dopamine levels. However, as with any medication, there can be side effects, and long-term use of this drug can actually sometimes cause the symptoms to worsen.  Discuss possible treatments with your doctor if you have RLS symptoms that do not seem to be getting better.

Can magnesium help with restless leg syndrome?

Magnesium supplementation is sometimes considered as a potential treatment for RLS, although the evidence supporting its effectiveness is limited and mixed. Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in various physiological functions, including muscle and nerve function.

Some studies suggest that magnesium deficiency may be associated with increased muscle cramps and spasms, symptoms commonly experienced by individuals with RLS. However, research specifically evaluating the use of magnesium for RLS has yielded mixed results.

While some studies have reported beneficial effects of magnesium supplementation on RLS symptoms, others have found no significant improvement compared to placebo.

Individual responses to magnesium supplementation may vary, influenced by factors such as the severity of RLS symptoms, underlying causes, and individual differences in magnesium metabolism. Before considering magnesium supplementation for RLS, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional to determine whether it is appropriate for you, discuss dosage recommendations, and monitor for potential side effects or interactions with other medications or supplements.

More research is needed to better understand the role of magnesium in RLS management and establish its optimal use as a treatment option.

When to see your doctor?

Here are some indications of when you should consider seeing your doctor for restless legs syndrome:

  1. Persistent symptoms - If you are experiencing persistent symptoms of restless legs syndrome, such as uncomfortable sensations in your legs and an irresistible urge to move them, particularly during periods of rest or inactivity, it is important to seek medical attention. RLS symptoms may significantly impact your quality of life, sleep patterns, and daily activities.

  2. Difficulty sleeping - If restless legs syndrome is interfering with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep, resulting in sleep disturbances, daytime fatigue, or impaired daytime functioning, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional. Proper management of RLS symptoms can help improve sleep quality and overall well-being.

  3. Severity of symptoms - If your restless legs syndrome symptoms are severe or worsening over time, despite attempts to alleviate them with self-care measures or lifestyle modifications, it may be beneficial to seek medical evaluation. Your doctor can assess the severity of your symptoms, identify any underlying causes or contributing factors, and recommend appropriate treatment options.

  4. Impact on daily activities - If restless legs syndrome is affecting your ability to perform daily activities, such as work, social interactions, or leisure activities, it is important to address these concerns with your healthcare provider. Your doctor can provide guidance on managing RLS symptoms and minimising their impact on your daily life.

  5. Presence of other medical conditions - If you have other medical conditions or underlying health concerns, such as iron deficiency, peripheral neuropathy, kidney disease, or diabetes, that may be contributing to or exacerbating restless legs syndrome, it is advisable to discuss these issues with your healthcare provider. Your doctor can evaluate any potential links between your medical conditions and RLS symptoms and develop a comprehensive treatment plan.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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