Q: How can I deal with restless legs syndrome?
A: Restless legs syndrome (RLS), which affects five to 10 percent of adults, is characterized by uncomfortable sensations—creeping, pulling, tugging, fidgeting, burning, even aching pain—deep inside the legs. It may feel like insects are crawling inside your legs or like your bones are itching. RLS tends to be worse if you are sleep-deprived or pregnant; it is more common in people with diabetes, nerve conditions and back pain.
It’s not known what causes this disorder; there seems to be a genetic component. Iron deficiency can also be involved, and so can lower-than-normal levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Certain antidepressants can worsen RLS.
If you think you have RLS, see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Unless RLS is due to an underlying cause that can be corrected, there is no cure. Some basic tips for good sleep may help manage symptoms—for instance, reduce or avoid caffeine and alcohol, exercise regularly and don’t smoke. Massage your legs when symptoms flare and before bed. Stretch your leg muscles, rotate your ankles, and flex your feet. Try using a hot water bottle or cold compresses. Putting a pillow between your legs before falling asleep may help.
If your symptoms remain severe, talk with your doctor. Several prescription medications have been approved to reduce RLS. A sleep evaluation may be recommended, since sleep apnea can exacerbate it.