Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a neurological condition that creates uncomfortable sensations in the legs, generally leading to an irresistible urge to move them, for relief. The uncomfortable sensation has been described as tingling, creeping, crawling feeling, and they often occur or get worse when the legs are at rest (sitting, lying down). The sensations range from mild to severe. Most people with RLS have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. If left untreated, RLS can certainly cause exhaustion and daytime fatigue.
RLS is classified as a movement disorder. People with RLS have an irresistible urge to move the affected limb when the sensations occur. Any movement of the legs will usually bring some immediate, although temporary relief.
RLS can be either primary or secondary. In most cases, RLS has no known cause. This is known as primary RLS or idiopathic RLS. With secondary RLS, the symptoms are due to another underlying medical condition and usually disappear when said the medical condition is treated. This is more specifically discussed later in this article.
Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome
RLS may result from not just one damaged gene, but an interaction of several genes under certain environmental conditions. In this case, it is low iron levels in the body which may occur before birth, during infancy or childhood, during pregnancy or later in adult life. Nearly half of people suffer from RLS also have a family member with the same condition.
Dopamine and iron
Through studies and researches done by scientists in years, dopamine and iron are believed to be two factors which are pertinent to RLS.
Low iron levels in blood indicate that there are problems with dopamine signaling in the brain region known as the basal ganglia. Our body needs iron to create dopamine, which is an important chemical used to send signals to the brain. In the basal ganglia, dopamine is a part of a pathway that makes decisions about starting muscle movement.
When there are normal amounts of dopamine, this pathway sends messages to other parts of the brain, enabling us to make smooth, controlled movements.
But, when there aren’t normal amounts of dopamine, the messages get messed up, and there is a chance to develop movement disorders like RLS or Parkinson’s disease.
Up to 40% of pregnant women, especially in the last trimester, experience RLS. RLS usually disappears after giving birth.
Potassium is a type of mineral that the body needs to help with muscles contraction. Reasons of a low level of potassium in the body may include:
- not consuming enough vegetables
- stomach’s inability to absorb potassium, due to lack of acid
- blood sugar issues, such as insulin resistance, diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Iron deficiency anemia
One of the most common causes of secondary RLS is iron deficiency anemia, which is characterized by low levels of hemoglobin in the blood.
Damage to the nerves of arms and legs is known as peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is seen in a variety of diseases, including diabetes, HIV infection, and alcoholism.
Renal (kidney) disease
When the kidney fails to function properly, iron stores in the blood decrease and RLS can result. RLS also occurs in as many as 25-50% of patients who have end-stage renal disease.
Certain prescription medications
- Anti-nausea drugs
- Antipsychotic drugs
- Anticonvulsants drugs
- Beta blockers
- Some cold and allergy medications that contain sedating antihistamines
Alcohol, caffeine, and smoking may exacerbate symptoms of RLS.