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Restless Leg Symptoms

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The symptoms of restless leg syndrome are complicated and may involve different sensations for different RLS sufferers. RLS symptoms are explained and explored in this article.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is defined as an urge to move that is essentially uncontrollable, and necessary to stop unpleasant sensations.

RLS is an unusual disorder and one that may be experienced in different ways by different people.

Despite the name, RLS symptoms are not confined to the legs either. While the legs tend to experience the most issues, RLS may be experienced in the arms, stomach, and even the neck and head. This article will explore common and less common symptoms of restless leg syndrome.

Recognizing the Diagnosis

RLS may exhibit many different types of sensations. As a result, the symptoms of RLS differ from person to person, not just in terms of severity but also in terms of the type of sensation.

The easiest way to understand the breadth of RLS symptoms is by the diagnostic criteria. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, there are four basic diagnostic criteria:

  • Symptoms that are worse at night and are absent or negligible in the morning;
  • A strong and often overwhelming need or urge to move the affected limb(s), often associated with paresthesias or dysesthesias;
  • Sensory symptoms that are triggered by rest, relaxation, or sleep; and
  • Sensory symptoms are relieved with movement and the relief persists as long as the movement continues.

Notice that nowhere in the diagnostic criteria does it list any specific symptoms. That's because the symptoms are often unusual. Dysesthesias means, by definition, "an unpleasant abnormal sensation" because in many cases the symptoms of RLS are hard to describe.

Paresthesias give the best set up clues about what people experience when they have RLS. Paresthesias are defined as any skin sensation that has no apparent physical cause, including:

  • Burning
  • Prickling
  • Itching
  • Tingling
  • Crawling
  • Tugging

Yet in many cases, the sensations caused by the urge to move are still difficult to truly explain, as the feeling is as much mental as it is physical. The legs (or other areas of the body) feel as though they are telling your body they need to move and doing so by sending various sensations through your nerves.

Common Symptoms of RLS

This irresistible urge to move the legs (or arms, trunk, or head) most commonly occurs at night, with symptoms becoming worse the more fatigued the individual becomes. They may also seem to occur more during times of relaxation.

The sensations themselves are the most noticeable. As mentioned, the sensations can differ from person to person and vary in severity even within individuals. Tingling that mimics the feeling that occurs when your leg wakes up from being "asleep" is one of the more common ways of describing RLS.

However, the urge itself can vary so considerably that some people experience genuine physical pain when they fail to move their limbs. Often when restless leg symptoms are painful, doctors strongly urge medical intervention.

It's not just the sensations though that are considered a symptom of RLS. It's also important that the symptoms are relieved through movement. If the tingling, burning, itching, pain, or feeling of needing to move, don't go away while the individual is moving then they may be suffering from something other than RLS. Relief through movement is the reason that RLS is known as "restless."

Another common symptom of RLS is nighttime leg twitching, also known as periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). Often PLMD is one of the main reasons to seek treatment, as it results in significant sleep disruption. The RLS sensations may also cause sleep disruption because they make it harder to relax and drift to sleep.

For RLS that doesn't cause pain, many treatments are designed to improve sleep quality, rather than treat RLS symptoms, because the movement itself is not dangerous or life-threatening. It's the lack of sleep that tends to reduce the quality of life.

Uncommon or Rare Restless Leg Symptoms

Because of the subjectivity of restless legs, there aren't necessarily any rare or uncommon symptoms. What differs is how the RLS is experienced. Some examples include:

Uncommon RLS Symptoms

Generally, most RLS is limited to the legs, and possibly the arms. As mentioned above, it may also spread to the trunk and head. In some very rare cases, RLS may affect the feet or genitals. It's these experiences that are causing many to prefer the term "Willis-Ekbom disease" rather than "restless leg" since the term "leg" is misleading.

RLS most often occurs on both sides of the body. But in some cases, it can occur on only one side of the body. The effects are generally no different, but when it occurs on one side it may lead to confusion or anxiety and awkward movements.

Those that suffer from severe RLS often only experience relief from the symptoms in the morning. Generally, though the rest of the day, the symptoms get worse. Most people that live with RLS experience fewer symptoms most of the day with onset starting closer to 8 pm depending on a sleep schedule.

Because RLS requires movement to relieve the symptoms, some people with RLS develop physical ticks and habits that may look unusual at first glance but are designed to prevent RLS onset or severity.

Sleep deprivation and RLS itself can cause significant anxiety and distress. Both anxiety and stress have been linked to exacerbating RLS. Those living with RLS symptoms may find themselves caught in a cycle of severity, experiencing more stress because of RLS, and experiencing more severe RLS as a result.

It should also be noted that while RLS doesn't necessarily have a physical cause, some health issues can lead to RLS, such as anemia and diabetes. In these cases, RLS may be linked to other physical symptoms, but they are generally a result of the underlying diseases themselves.

Controlling RLS Symptoms

The symptoms of restless leg syndrome are often somewhat confusing because of the differences in how RLS is experienced. Luckily, regardless of the experience, RLS can be controlled with a combination of lifestyle changes, improved sleep, and better nutrition. RLS is not a life-threatening disease, and there are proven methods of relieving the symptoms of RLS in nearly everyone that suffers from the disorder.




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