By Deborah Gilmore
Restless Leg Syndrome. If commercials on TV for RLS-relieving drugs are the only knowledge you have of this chronic condition, then you’re lucky. The commercials describe the feeling as a burning, creeping, or “wormy” feeling in the legs when trying to relax. For me, it’s more an aching, fidgety pain in my legs that causes them to jerk and move in an attempt to get relief from the pain. Remember when you were young? You might have experienced something similar, your doctor telling your mother not to worry, “it’s only growing pains,” and that it would pass as you got older. My grandmother’s diagnosis was simply: “You’ve got the jimmie legs.”
The “jimmie legs” subsided a bit during my teenage years, only to return with a vengeance once I became pregnant at 27. The condition began to flare up more often as I got older. When I hit middle age, I could count on tossing and turning with what is now known as RLS 8 out of 10 nights. My concentration and work suffered, my temper shortened, and I stayed run down — all those miserable things that afflict the sleep-deprived.
The 7-year-old girl with “growing pains” could only kick the covers all night and cry, but when I grew up, I mounted an all-out attack against my RLS. Over the years I have tried, with varying results: calcium supplements, apple cider vinegar, iron supplements, hot baths, sports creams, massage, cutting out caffeine, herbal remedies, stretching, pain killers, a vegetarian diet, exercise, less exercise, NO exercise, tonic water and dopamine agonist drugs.
Exactly what is RLS? Is it potentially dangerous? Dr. Anuj Chandra, a Board Certified Sleep Medicine Specialist at the Advanced Center for Sleep Disorders on E. Brainerd Rd., says RLS is “a disruptive neurological disorder that affects up to 10% of the population, characterized by leg discomfort during sleep, and the irresistible urge to move the legs which is often accompanied by unusual or unpleasant sensations in the legs. In can occur during the day and worsen when lying down. Symptoms may be worse during stress or emotional upset,” according to Dr. Chandra.
The symptoms include a strong urge to move the legs, usually accompanied by a sensation that can be described as creeping, pulling, tugging, or gnawing. About four out of five people with RLS also experience periodic limb movements during sleep, according to John Winkleman, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Sleep Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. RLS is mostly diagnosed in middle-aged and older adults, but it can affect people of all ages, and it often runs in families.
In a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, Icelandic researchers have discovered a gene that’s linked to RLS. They also discovered that those with the gene variant were more likely to have low iron levels. “There is a strong familial and genetic basis to restless legs syndrome,” says Dr. Winkleman.
What are the risks associate with RLS? Dr. Chandra says “decreased quality of sleep with subsequent daytime sleepiness, anxiety or depression, confusion or slowed thought processes from lack of sleep.”
There’s much conjecture as to the underlying cause of RLS. Jack L. Nickle, D.C. at Relief Doc Services, Inc. on E. Brainerd Rd., says one cause is related to the body’s inability to digest and assimilate calcium, then get it to the legs. “Three of the most common underlying problems faced by Americans are: 1) insufficient calcium delivery to cells; 2) deteriorating bones and joints with resultant arthritis, osteoporosis, stenosis, pinched nerves and neuropathies; and 3) insufficient circulation to deliver oxygen to cells. These problems are all primarily nutritional or structural. Ironically all three make up the major causes of a condition called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).”
So what should an RLS sufferer do? What are the options for treatment?
“When it comes to insufficient calcium to the legs, you must first think digestion,” says Dr. Nickle. “If you are one of those popping antacids persistently throughout the day, stop and use proper diet and enzyme supplementation to help resolve the problem. To get calcium to your cells, you especially need adequate acids and enzymes in your stomach. Additionally you may need to supplement unsaturated fatty acids to act as a ‘middleman’ for calcium distribution. Whole food calcium supplementation will provide a readily available source of easily assimilated calcium. This process will fortify the nutrition available through a healthy ‘fruit and vegetable rich’ diet.
“There is no reason for RLS to be at epidemic proportions in America,” says Dr. Nickle. “Treat the underlying causes of the problem and the symptoms should resolve on their own.”
Research is ongoing. According to Dr. Chandra, some preliminary studies have found that RLS often runs in families, and that the condition sometimes appears as a result of another medical condition. Apparently up to 25% of women develop RLS during pregnancy but studies say it disappears after giving birth. In addition to affecting people with anemia and low iron levels, “people in end-stage renal disease with dialysis, and people with damage to the nerves and feet (from varied causes, including diabetes) frequently develop RLS,” says Dr. Chandra.
Not too long ago my grown daughter and I took in a movie. About 30 minutes into the flick, she looked at me accusingly, bouncing her aching legs and squirming; she has a difficult time sitting still because of RLS. It also bothers her at night now and then. “You gave this to me!” she grumbled. We laughed a little about it, but RLS really isn’t much of a laughing matter to either one of us.