Willis-Ekbom disease, formerly called restless legs syndrome (RLS), a physical malady that affects as many as 12 million Americans, is an unusual sensation in the leg muscles that creates an irresistible urge to move the legs for relief. The feeling has been described as a fidgeting, pulling, or itching sensationor, more graphically, as worms crawling in the muscles. Symptoms may last for an hour or more, generally starting at night or during rest. Typically, symptoms start within 5 to 30 minutes after lying down, just prior to the onset of sleep.
People of all ages can experience Willis-Ekbom disease (WED), although the problem occurs most often in older people, especially women. WED/RLS often runs in families, and it worsens in times of stress. Since Willis-Ekbom disease can wake people from a sound sleep or prevent them from getting to sleep in the first place, it often results in insomnia.
Symptoms of Willis-Ekbom Disease
- Irresistible urge to move the legs or other affected body parts
- Unpleasant crawling and/or aching sensation inside the calf muscles while lying down (Similar sensations may also be felt in the thighs, feet and arms.)
- Frequent burning pain or itching of the legs
- Involuntary jerking movements of the legs during sleep
What Causes Willis-Ekbom disease (or Restless Legs Syndrome)?
The exact cause of Willis-Ekbom disease or restless legs syndrome is unknown. People with restless legs syndrome also sometimes have a condition called “periodic movement disorder,” which involves an involuntary jerking of the legs. Some research suggests that the symptoms of WED are related to lower-than-normal levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Pregnancy is linked with higher incidences of Willis-Ekbom disease (it generally clears up after delivery), as are iron-deficiency anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, lung disease, and kidney disease. Emotional stress, and the regular use of tobacco or caffeine, may trigger or aggravate symptoms.
What If You Do Nothing?
Willis-Ekbom disease (or RLS) is extremely unpleasant and if left untreated can bring on an exhausting chronic insomnia. But if you’re healthy, as most people with WED are, simple changes in lifestyle may be enough to bring some relief from a condition that can last for years. It’s also worth talking to your doctor about Willis-Ekbom disease, since some medications are being used to successfully treat the problem.
Home Remedies for Willis-Ekbom Disease (Restless Legs Syndrome)
- Avoid caffeine. Caffeine worsens symptoms.
- Exercise your legs before bedtime. Walk around for 10 to 15 minutes prior to going to bed. This will stretch the leg muscles and can help promote restful sleep. Massaging your leg muscles before bedtime may also help relieve symptoms.
- Yoga and mediation. Practicing meditation and yoga daily can promote relaxation and reduce symptoms of RLS.
- Start walking. If symptoms strike while you’re in bed, get up and walk around. Try doing a few simple exercises.
- Wear long, heavy socks. Keeping your feet and legs warm in bed may help relax your muscles.
- Try the cold approach. Some people may find relief by soaking their feet in cold water. A cold compress applied to the shins and calf muscles may also help. You can leave your legs uncovered in bed.
- Try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees. This may help relax leg muscles.
- Reduce emotional stress. Stress management techniques or psychological counseling may help relieve anxiety that triggers symptoms.
Nicotine and large amounts of caffeine may trigger Willis-Ekbom disease in some people. Consequently, avoid products containing caffeine, and if you smoke, stop.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if Willis-Ekbom disease, restless legs syndrome, is severe and/or regularly interferes with sleep.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Little is known about WED/RLS, and it can be extremely difficult to diagnose and treat. A thorough physical examination will first be performed to exclude other disorders.
Some medications such as antihistamines may cause restless legs syndrome as a side effect; if that applies to you, your medication may be changed to prevent symptoms. Some people with WED/RLS have an iron deficiency, so the doctor will also check iron levels and prescribe iron supplements when needed.
After a diagnosis is made, various tranquilizers (benzodiazepines) may be prescribed for more severe cases. Doctors have also been prescribing anti-Parkinson drugs with some success.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media