Restless leg syndrome: what it is and how to treat and prevent it

Suffer with restless leg syndrome? Physio Sarah Green explains causes, treatment and prevention

What is restless leg syndrome

What is restless leg syndrome?

Restless Leg Syndrome is a sensory neurological disorder which is characterised by unpleasant sensations in the legs or feet and there is an overwhelming urge to move the legs. It is usually experienced when trying to sleep or when seated.

What causes restless leg syndrome?

The exact cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown but it has been linked to a number of different factors:

  1.   Iron deficiency and poor iron transport around the body.
  1. Chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, diabetes and peripheral neuropathy.
  2.  Pregnancy – especially in the last trimester. Symptoms usually go away within a month after delivery.
  3. Medications such as anti-nausea, antipsychotics and some anti-depressants.
  4. Lifestyle triggers can include sleep disorders, excessive smoking, alcohol or caffeine intake, lack of exercise and stress.

What are the symptoms restless leg syndrome?

Symptoms include cramping, soreness, or a crawling sensation in the calves or feet which can vary in severity from mild discomfort to severe pain.

Symptoms occur or get worse during periods of inactivity and they are eased by moving the legs or rubbing them. Due to the effects most commonly being symptomatic at night, it can therefore cause difficulty with falling asleep.

What is the treatment for restless leg syndrome?

In order to relieve an episode of restless leg syndrome it is worth trying gentle leg movements and exercises to bring symptomatic relief. Avoid heavy weights or working the muscles to fatigue, but try changing position, walking, gentle stretches and gently moving the ankles up and down. Applying a heat pack or a cold compress to the symptomatic area for 10 minutes can settle symptoms, as can massaging or foam rolling the lower limb muscles.

How do you prevent restless leg syndrome?

This very much depends on the individual cause. Mild restless leg syndrome which is not linked to an underlying medical condition can be managed with a few lifestyle changes:

  • Regular daily aerobic exercise of moderate intensity for 20-30 minutes. This includes walking, cycling or swimming.
  • A regular exercise programme to include lower body resistance training. Gentle yoga and Pilates can also be a great adjunct to the 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, in oder to improve and maintain lower limb flexibility, stability and muscle tone. Avoid high intensity exercise and exercising close to bedtime.
  • Avoiding stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine.
  • Stopping smoking.
  • Good sleep habits and a regular sleep routine.
  • Manage stress- trialling relaxation techniques before bed.
  • Supplementing any vitamin deficiencies; if there is evidence of iron, magnesium or folate deficiencies, then this should be addressed.

In more severe cases, or when lifestyle changes haven’t influenced the symptoms, a variety of medications can be prescribed. There isn’t one single medication which has been shown to prevent restless leg syndrome, however medications which affect dopamine transmission in the central nervous system have been shown to help. Other medications which may be prescribed include central nervous system depressants, benzodiazepines, opioids and anticonvulsants.

  If you have any health concerns at all or are worried about injuries always consult a doctor, pharmacist or chartered physiotherapist

Keen triathlete and runner Sarah Green is a Consultant Rehab Physio at Six Physio Fitzrovia and specialises in rehab, pilates, running re-training and correcting movement dysfunctions.