Legs That Won't Quit
If you have restless leg syndrome (RLS), these symptoms will be all too familiar: When you’re lying in bed, or sometimes just sitting for long periods, your legs take on a life of their own, itching, pulling, aching, and burning; you can’t resist the urge to move them. Walking around may help (RLS is triggered by rest). Generally this happens in the evening or at night, and can put an end to sleep. It can also disturb the person who shares your bed or bedroom—secondhand RLS, as it were. Involuntary leg jerking (“periodic limb movement disorder”) may accompany RLS, but RLS is unrelated to the calf cramps that most of us experience at one time or another.Is low iron the culprit?
Though RLS has been much studied, no one knows what causes it. It may occur at any age, even in children, but people over 45, especially women, are most likely to be affected. Pregnant women, in particular, may have RLS in the last three months before giving birth.
The most recent theory is that iron deficiency is a factor—the clue is that pregnant women often have low iron stores, and RLS sometimes accompanies iron-deficiency anemia. Or it could be that the body somehow fails to process iron properly. Thus iron supplements are sometimes prescribed for RLS, but you should get medical advice first. Don’t take an iron supplement on your own, beyond what’s in a multivitamin/mineral pill.
If your RLS is frequent or severe, see your doctor. There may not be much a doctor can do, but checking for iron deficiency might be a good idea. There’s no standard medication, though tranquilizers may provide temporary relief, and the drugs used for Parkinson’s disease can be prescribed in severe cases. New drugs are currently under review by the FDA.What you can do on your own• Avoid
caffeinated beverages and alcohol in the evening. Smoking, too, will worsen RLS—so here’s another reason to quit if you smoke.• Massage your legs
before going to bed. Stretch your leg muscles and rotate your ankles. • A hot water bottle
or, conversely, cold compresses applied to your legs at bedtime may help. Try both and see which works. It may be simpler just to take a warm (or cool) bath before bed.• Sleep
on your side with a pillow between your legs. • If RLS keeps you awake,
get up and try to distract yourself. Do a few exercises. Walk around. Stand at a counter and read or watch TV. Mental distractions are helpful.• RLS
tends to become less severe, or even vanish, after age 60. You may simply get better on your own.
The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation promotes research and offers support. You can get more information on its website. Or you can phone 507-287-6465, or send an e-mail to email@example.com
UC Berkeley Wellness Letter 2009