When I was pregnant with my wonderful, now 14 year old daughter, my feet started to act out. When I lay down in bed, really tired and ready to go to sleep, my feet seemed to be in the mood for some wild dancing. It was almost like they were out of sync with the rest of my body, governed by a different force. I often woke up in the middle of the night and lay awake for a long time with this really uncomfortable and almost uncontrollable urge to jerk my feet, constantly. Even if I kicked and wiggled and yanked until the muscles in my thighs were shaking with exhaustion, this weird feeling wouldn’t go away. The image of a man slapping his pregnant wife in the middle of the night isn’t pretty, but at that time, the only relief I could find was to wake my husband up and ask him to smack the soles of my feet with an open hand, really hard!
Sometimes when I see a really hyperactive child, trying without success to sit still, I imagine that he or she has the same feeling I have sometimes in my legs, all over his or her little body.
At first, it did not occur to me that this could be a known affliction with a name attached to it. I had never heard of anyone experiencing anything like this, so I was extremely relieved to find that this was a known neurological condition that was not that uncommon. In fact it is among the most common disorders seen in sleep clinics.
Restless leg syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a recognized neurological condition. The symptoms can come and go and their severity can vary from mild to intolerable. The symptoms are generally worst in the evening and at night. At their worst they significantly impair a person’s quality of life by disrupting sleep. The first description of RLS came from Thomas Willis in 1685, but it was Ekbom who coined the term restless legs (RLS is also sometimes referred to as Ekbom’s syndrome).
According to my sources, restless legs are sometimes secondary to other medical conditions, most frequently renal failure, iron deficiency and pregnancy (hmmm… not sure if I would call pregnancy a medical condition).
The diagnostic criteria for RLS developed by the American National Institute of Health are:
1. Undesirable sensations in the legs that occur before sleep onset
2. Irresistible urge to move the limbs
3. Partial or complete relief of the symptoms on movement of the limbs
4. Return of symptoms on cessation of the movements
The prevalence of RLS is estimated to be 1-29% with significant geographical variations. Women are afflicted to a greater extent than men and the prevalence increases with age.
The cause of RLS remains elusive. Research has implicated dopaminergic systems, brain iron metabolism and the endogenous opioid system. In accordance with the implicated causes, therapies that have been found to be effective for RLS have been dopaminergic agents, iron therapy and oral opioids.
Here is a video from illumistream on YouTube about the causes of RLS:
It hasn’t always been easy to find support and treatment for those who suffer from RLS. Even doctors may not take restless legs seriously, recognize the symptoms, or realize it’s a real medical condition. Drugs have adverse side-effects and sometimes only work for a period of thime. Those who suffer have therefore made their own forums where they exchange tips on how to best manage their symptoms, for example:
Internet forum for people with RLS:
Facebook page for people with RLS:
Ever since my first pregnancy, the symptoms of RLS have come and gone periodically. For the first years I just suffered in silence as RLS kept me up many nights. Then I stumbled upon a remedy that works for me every time: Magnesium, in powder form, dissolved in water. Hallelujah!
Natarajan, R. (2010). Review of periodic limb movement and restless leg syndrome. Journal of Postgraduate Medicine. 56, 157-162.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnleach/67938402/