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Medical conditions related to restless legs

Posted: 9th November 2015 10:11

It’s 2am. You’ve been woken from sleep for the third time by the uncontrollable urge to move your legs. You have an itchy, crawling feeling in your calves and your legs are aching like they’re on fire. Sound familiar?  You could have Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).

Experts estimate that up to 15% of adults will experience restless leg syndrome at some time in their lives.  Restless legs can afflict both sexes, but the condition is more common in women, with 19% of women developing RLS symptoms when they are pregnant. Most people who are severely affected by RLS are middle-aged or older.

RLS occurs for various reasons. Some of the most common are:

Genetic factors

Research indicates that some people are more likely than others to suffer from RLS.  Recent genetic studies have found at least six genes that may be responsible for RLS. Two of those genes are also associated with spinal cord development.

Dopamine dysfunction

Our brains use the chemical dopamine to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity.  Problems with dopamine levels in the brain can cause the unpleasant sensations associated with RLS such as burning, itching and the uncontrollable need to move the legs.  

Iron deficiency

Evidence shows that low levels of iron in the brain could be responsible for RLS in some circumstances.  Studies suggest that although sufferers may have enough iron in their blood, their bodies are not delivering iron to particular brain cells in an effective way.  

Varicose veins or venous reflux

Physicians believe that many cases of RLS are attributable to varicose veins. Varicose veins are dark blue or purple, lumpy and swollen veins, most often found in the legs. Varicose veins develop when tiny valves in the veins don’t work properly.  A healthy vein pumps blood smoothly through to the heart by opening and closing small valves to let the blood through, keeping it flowing in the right direction.  If these valves become damaged, blood can no longer flow through efficiently.  The blood builds up or even flows backwards, causing the condition we know as varicose veins.

Addressing underlying venous reflux or varicose veins can help many patients find relief from RLS.  A recent study found that 98% of patients with RSL experienced relief from their symptoms after having their varicose veins treated, and 80% had long-term relief.

Thyroid disease

Research shows that untreated thyroid disease can produce RLS symptoms.  Some forms of this condition cause a lack of magnesium and vitamin B in the blood.  Low levels of these vitamins and minerals can cause the muscle tightening, leg spasms and creepy, crawly sensations in the legs of RLS.

Diagnosing and treating RLS

Unfortunately, there is no specific test or criteria to confirm a diagnosis of restless legs syndrome. Your doctor has to rely on your description of your symptoms and medical history in order to make a diagnosis.

Although RLS does not cause serious health problems, it can seriously affect your quality of life. Repeated sleep interruptions can lead to severe fatigue, low mood and depression.  

Although there are drugs out there that may help manage RSL, medications carry their own side effects and risks. If your medical professional has confirmed that you suffer from RLS, the good news is that there are many non-pharmaceutical options that can help you relieve your symptoms:

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