When you can’t sleep: what is restless legs syndrome and how to deal with it

Do you often suffer from insomnia? Do you have an irresistible urge to move your legs to get rid of discomfort? You may have a movement disorder or restless legs syndrome. We will tell you why it occurs and how to treat it.

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Restless legs syndrome (Willis-Ekbom disease) was first described by the British medical scientist Thomas Willis in 1672.

“Some people, immediately after going to bed and going to bed, have movement of tendons, arms, and legs, accompanied by colic and such anxiety that the patient cannot sleep, as if he is being tortured.” Since then, little has changed and the symptoms have remained the same.

Why does the disease occur

Today, the cause of primary restless legs syndrome is unknown. However, the disorder is genetically inherited and is more commonly diagnosed in close relatives under 40. In addition, it is believed that the disease is associated with dysfunction in one of the brain regions that control movement. We are talking about the basal ganglia, which produces the hormone of happiness — dopamine. The available evidence also indicates that low iron levels in the brain are another possible cause of restless legs.

Secondary syndrome is associated (accompanied) with conditions / factors such as:

  • end-stage renal failure (stage close to death);
  • iron deficiency;
  • taking certain drugs that can aggravate the symptoms of the disease – antiemetics (for example, prochlorperazine or metoclopramide), antipsychotics (haloperidol or phenothiazine derivatives), antidepressants that increase serotonin levels (fluoxetine or sertraline), etc.;
  • drinking alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine;
  • pregnancy, especially in the last trimester; in most cases, symptoms disappear within four weeks after delivery;
  • neuropathy (nerve damage);
  • sleep disorders, sleep apnea (stopping breathing).


The syndrome has five main features:

  1. Unpleasant sensations in the legs: goose bumps, trembling, tingling, burning, twitching, electric shock.
  1. Feelings intensify at rest: most often, patients complain of discomfort in the lower extremities at night, while falling asleep
  1. Symptoms are ameliorated by movement: patients are forced to walk at night to relieve discomfort
  1. Symptoms are cyclical: most often they appear in the evening or at night.
  1. The syndrome is accompanied by insomnia

How to treat

Please note that restless legs syndrome is usually a lifelong disease for which there is no cure. However, a neurologist may prescribe certain groups of drugs that will help minimize symptoms and ensure adequate sleep.

These groups of drugs include:

  • Anticonvulsants. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several for the treatment of moderate to the severe syndrome.
  • Dopaminergic drugs — drugs that enhance the action of dopamine (used to treat Parkinson’s disease).
  • Benzodiazepines — are psychoactive substances that have a hypnotic, sedative effect.
  • Iron supplementation can be beneficial if the level is below 50 mcg / L. Remember that vitamin C improves the absorption of ferritin, which is why they are prescribed in combination.

The drugs are dispensed strictly by prescription. Prior consultation with a doctor is required.


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