If you’re familiar with restless leg syndrome, you know just how frustrating – and painful – it can be. Restless leg syndrome doesn’t just impact your legs either; it impacts your ability to fall and stay asleep, which can have detrimental effects on you and your life. But what exactly causes restless leg syndrome? Below, we’ll go over what restless leg syndrome is, what causes restless leg syndrome, what the symptoms of restless leg syndrome are, and restless leg syndrome treatment.
What is Restless Leg Syndrome?
Restless leg syndrome, also called Willis-Ekbom disease, is a nervous system disorder that causes you to experience an intense and uncontrollable urge to move your legs. It usually happens when you’re sleeping or sitting or lying down for an extended period of time. Restless leg syndrome usually happens before bed and can prevent you from falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting quality rest, which has led doctors to classify it as a sleep disorder as well. People who have restless leg syndrome also typically suffer from varicose veins, which are enlarged blood vessels that cause veins in the legs to swell and are often painful.
What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?
The cause of restless leg syndrome isn’t always known, however, there are a few known causes and triggers.
1. Genetics: Restless leg syndrome can run in your family, and this is often believed to be the cause if symptoms present themselves before the age of 40. Scientists have found a chromosome that has specific sites where restless leg syndrome genes can present themselves as well.
2. Dopamine dysregulation: Scientists have also found that restless leg syndrome is related to the area of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia controls movement and muscle function with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps your nervous system regulate and control movement by communicating between the brain and nervous system. If nerve cells in your brain have sustained damage, the amount of dopamine present in your brain becomes reduced, which results in involuntary movement and muscle spasms. Dopamine levels naturally taper off at the end of the day, and this is why it’s believed that restless leg syndrome symptoms are worse at night.
3. Iron deficiency: It’s not entirely clear how iron deficiency or anemia plays a part in restless leg syndrome, but there is a connection between the two. Iron deficiency affects other areas of the brain, and it’s believed that this could impact dopamine regulation.
4. Chronic diseases: Some chronic and long-term diseases include restless leg syndrome as a symptom. These include Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure/renal disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, and peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage).
5. Pregnancy: The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester, can trigger the onset of restless leg syndrome or make existing restless leg syndrome worse. Pregnancy-related restless leg syndrome typically goes away following the pregnancy.
6. Medications: Some medicines can make symptoms worse or trigger restless leg syndrome while in use. These include antipsychotics, some antidepressants, cold and allergy meds that contain antihistamines, and anti-nausea meds.
7. Lifestyle: Certain lifestyle factors are restless leg syndrome causes. A lack of sleep, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, being overweight, chronic stress, excessive alcohol and/or caffeine consumption, and smoking are all linked to restless leg syndrome.
What are Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms?
There are five basic criteria and symptoms that must be present to diagnose restless leg syndrome. They are:
- An uncontrollable and overwhelming urge to move your legs that feels painful or uncomfortable
- The urge to move starts or gets worse during times of rest
- The urge to move starts or gets worse at nighttime
- The urge dissipates with movement
- There’s no other cause of the urge to move, such as leg cramps, muscle spasms, or arthritis
What Are Restless Leg Syndrome Treatment Options?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for restless leg syndrome but, there are treatment options that can help you manage symptoms. The restless leg syndrome treatments include:
- Getting regular exercise
- Following a sleep schedule
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and smoking
- Leg massages
- Hot baths
- Heating and ice packs
- Dopaminergic drugs
- Magnesium supplements
- Anti-seizure meds
- Narcotic pain relievers
Restless leg syndrome is a lifelong disease that can be difficult to live with. Working with your doctor to understand what might cause or trigger your restless leg syndrome is the best way to manage your symptoms. To learn more about restless leg syndrome or to seek treatment for varicose veins that might be making your restless leg syndrome worse, contact us today!