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Fidgety Facts on Restless Legs

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Picture, if you will, settling into an easy chair after a long day to watch your favourite television program or read a few chapters in your book.

Picture, if you will, settling into an easy chair after a long day to watch your favourite television program or read a few chapters in your book. Far from being a relaxing experience, however, sensations deep in your legs force you to fidget, to shake and rub your legs and eventually drive you right out of your chair. So much for relaxation–now you’re pacing the floor!

Picturing this scenario is no great feat if you are among the five per cent of adults, or the 10 per cent of those over age 65, who experience first-hand frustrating bouts of restless leg syndrome (RLS) every day.

Syndrome Signs

Restless leg syndrome can occur at any age and to either gender. Children who experience this condition are likely labelled "hyperactive," or they’re told they’re experiencing growing pains. But RLS usually surfaces during adulthood, and worsens over time. The symptoms–a sometimes almost uncontrollable urge to move the legs–are especially bad at night, or during periods of relaxation and decreased activity, day or night.

Sensations that are variously described as crawling, tingling, creeping, pulling and/or twitching makes sitting or lying down for long stretches of time very uncomfortable, and in some cases unbearable. The condition can worsen to the point that a person simply cannot manage to sit comfortably–in a movie theatre or an airplane, for example.

One or both legs may be affected (as well as the arms). Because people with this syndrome have trouble falling asleep, which in turn often leads to chronic insomnia, sufferers are often sleepy during the day. In addition, many who suffer from RLS also show symptoms of what is known as periodic limb movements in sleep. This involves involuntary jerking or leg-bending movements–typically occurring every 10 to 60 seconds and resulting in frequent sleep interruption.

Restless Leg Risk Factors

Chronic diseases such as kidney failure and diabetes can lead to RLS. Adding to the frustration factor, however, is the fact that, aside from the cases that can be associated directly with an underlying condition, there is no specifically known cause for restless legs as a singular condition.

Many researchers believe that circulatory and nervous systems are involved. Studies have shown that some pregnant women experience it–especially in their last months, when normal circulation becomes restricted. Those who smoke, which also has the effect of restricting circulation, are known to be prone to the syndrome as well–more so than those who don’t smoke.

Anemia, a deficiency in iron, is sometimes related to RLS; symptoms improve once the deficiency is corrected. Poor absorption of folic acid is another theory, as is the possibility of a masked food allergy.

Shaking the Restless Leg

Treatment requires some experimentation, and because this is a condition that worsens with stress, relaxation techniques and stress management are key. Taking a hot bath, massaging the legs, applying a heating pad or ice pack, exercising and eliminating caffeine should make a difference in comparatively mild cases. Be aware, too, that socks, pantyhose and underwear made of synthetic fibres can worsen the condition as they restrict circulation and the skin’s access to air.

Eating more foods that provide B vitamins, or supplementing with B vitamins, will aid blood circulation. Vitamin E has also proven successful in treatment because it improves circulation and oxygen supply to tissues and nerves. Magnesium helps control muscle spasms, which are thought to cause the deep, crawling, tingling sensations. And St John’s wort is an excellent herb to support the nerves.

It may be a matter of correcting a deficiency, like folic acid or iron, or of researching and practicing new ways to deal with the condition and start to live "normally." But recognizing the restless leg syndrome as both treatable and curable is the first step toward achieving genuine relaxation at the end of a hard day.

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