Restless Legs Remedies – Symptom Reduction Is Possible
About 10% of the population is thought to suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). There is no known cure, but experts say symptoms can be reduced. Changes in lifestyle, as well as the use of pressure stimulation on the legs, such as through a weighted blanket or pressure massage, can help reduce leg pain at night.
Photo caption: A weighted blanket replicates the sensation of a pressure massage; heavy enough to soothe muscles without restricting movement.
RLS is a neurologic sensorimotor disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs: feelings of itchiness or of “pins and needles”. The sensations typically occur when a person is lying or sitting, so symptoms are often present and intolerable at night. Individuals experience pain and difficulties sleeping; symptoms can be mild or severe, and may fluctuate daily.
Restless Legs Syndrome Causes
The current thinking is that the disorder is related to dopamine, a chemical in the brain which sends messages to control muscle movements in the body. Because people often have low iron levels there is also thought that the brain is using iron abnormally in some way. There appears to be a genetic link to the disorder, as half the people who are diagnosed with RLS have a family member having it. ADHD is common in children and adults with RLS.
There is no known cure. There are prescription medications available, although some cause side effects or only work for a time. If you are suffering from uncomfortable leg sensations, see your doctor. It is helpful to maintain a journal of your sleeping patterns and pain symptoms. RLS symptoms may be part of another disease, like Parkinson’s disease or diabetes; the RLS symptoms may be partially relieved through the treatment of the other disorder. RLS is diagnosed in almost 25% of pregnancies, although the symptoms are usually temporary.
Here are some general therapy suggestions from experts, RLS patients and occupational therapists, to discuss with your doctor:
• Increase daily exercise (moderate/low-impact and not close to bedtime)
• Establish routine in your sleeping habits - introduce a “buffer time” before going to bed. This is a good time to relax with a therapeutic weighted blanket. The additional pressure stimulation causes the body to secrete the hormone serotonin, which over time converts to melatonin, which can result in improved sleep
• Eliminate caffeine, tobacco and alcohol
• Have your doctor evaluate all of your medications, even over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies. Antihistamines, sleeping pills, cold medicines, anti-depressants, asthma medications and a variety of prescription medications have shown to increase symptoms in some people
• Improve diet, minimizing refined foods
• Vitamins and supplements: Talk to your doctor about dosages and whether these options might be viable for you: vitamins, and also taking folate, iron, calcium, melatonin and magnesium supplements. Many RLS patients have low iron levels, so get tested; you may need iron replacement therapy.
• Heat/Cold: Hot baths/heating pads or ice packs before bedtime, or in the middle of the night
• Leg massage – According to the National Center for Biotechnology, “tactile and temperature stimulation, including massage or hot baths, can also be successful in decreasing symptoms”. A weighted blanket, with its deep pressure touch stimulation, may help
• Stretching (calf) exercises and yoga
• Pneumatic compression – inflatable cuffs worn around the legs, providing pressure
• Compression stockings – providing pressure
• Forced compression in the bed, provides pressure stimulation by placing an object for the feet to push up against
• Near-infrared light (NIR) therapy
• Prescription drugs are available, but do not work well for everyone and often stop working over time • Mindfulness techniques: often coupled with meditation or yoga, focusing on one thing in the present moment, like a sound or site (ocean waves). The premise is that a stimulus (restless leg pain) causes a response, but one can choose whether to respond with feeling/focusing on pain, or focusing on something else. Some people also get relief by focusing on a single task, like a puzzle or needle-pointing, which focuses the brain on something other than the pain
RLS is a tricky disorder as everyone experiences symptoms a bit differently, and treatments vary wildly in terms of what works for each individual. Talk with your doctor about what approach is best for you and your overall medical condition.
For more information about RLS, check out the RLS website. They have a downloadable sleep journal as well as other extremely useful information. Note that RLS is now referred to as Willis-Ekborn Disease.
Contact: Laura LeMond
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