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What Are The Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome?

For someone with restless leg syndrome (RLS), the urge to move the legs can be almost overwhelming when lying down or seated.  In some respects, this condition remains a mystery to healthcare providers.

Exactly What Is RLS?

This disorder affects as many as 15 percent of the general population, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.  It might occur as a temporary issue, perhaps during a pregnancy, or as a chronic problem and can affect adults or children.  While treatments are available, it often remains undiagnosed.

Physicians that typically treat this disorder are vascular surgeons.  When examining a patient, particularly one with leg pain, a specialist will also look carefully for signs of venous insufficiency and deep vein thrombosis.

The hallmark symptom is the irresistible inclination to move the legs, a condition known as akathisia.  Leg pain, cramping, itching, burning, tingling, and aching are common symptoms.  Around 80 percent of patients experience semi-rhythmic movements while asleep, collectively known as periodic limb movement disorder. 

The Mayo Clinic notes sensations always begin after being at rest.  Movement such as walking, stretching, pacing, or shaking the legs brings relief.  Symptoms typically worsen at night.

What Causes This Disorder?

While the cause of RLS remains unknown for many patients, experts have linked a number of conditions to it.  MedicineNet.com cites these:

  • Excess weight
  • Pregnancy
  • Iron deficiency and anemia
  • Nerve disease
  • Smoking
  • Polyneuropathy
  • Hormone-related disorders such as diabetes
  • Kidney failure
  • Consuming certain substances, among them caffeine, alcohol, and some histamine blockers and antidepressants

There is some evidence that this disorder runs in families.  In children, it is often mistaken as growing pains.  Conditions such as varicose veins that are associated with venous insufficiency can cause it.  The Mayo Clinic reports that researchers believe an imbalance of dopamine could be a culprit.  This chemical, present in the brain, issues directives that control the movement of muscles. 

Females have a higher risk of developing this problem than males do.  In addition, the incidence of the disorder increases with age.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Physicians make a positive diagnosis after evaluating a medical history, reviewing symptoms, and completing a comprehensive physical exam.  Diagnosis requires that patients meet four criteria related to the nature of their symptoms.

The first step in treatment involves looking for an underlying illness or disorder.  Reduction of leg restlessness is possible with the use of medications that boost dopamine levels, affect calcium channels, relax muscles, and aid sleep.  Some patients might take opioids to control symptoms.  Sufferers commonly require medication changes to achieve the best control of symptoms.

Simple lifestyle changes can also help alleviate symptoms.  Among them are warm baths, leg massages, relaxation techniques such as meditation, and moderate physical exercise.  Establishing good sleep hygiene is particularly important.  Avoiding or at least cutting back on caffeine consumption has helped many patients.