A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Can’t stop movin’ those painful legs?


Restless leg syndrome, an ailment that causes you to move your legs to remove pain, is largely treatable.

Your legs ache, with a deep pain that usually gets worse at night. Your only relief comes from moving them – which you frequently do – possibly to the annoyance of anyone you’re with.

Sounds like a classic case of restless leg syndrome, which happens frequently in people of northern European descent.

“Some patients with advanced cases even have restless arms, neck and head,” said Dr. Jaime Boero, a sleep medicine specialist at Marshfield Clinic.

The disease has a strong genetic pattern, with about 60 percent of cases handed down from one generation to another.

Iron may help

In most patients, treatment involves medications, and iron supplements if necessary. Relatively few patients also need Vitamin D supplements.

Medications for restless leg syndrome act in the brain and help it control the movement of the legs. This relief allows the patient to sleep. In most cases, this often is effective, especially if you combine it with lifestyle changes such as relaxation techniques and moderate exercise.

“Some families have a major problem absorbing an oral dose of iron, so we put them on an intravenous dose every few months, but this is rare,” Boero said. “Sometimes we can help supplement the iron with Vitamin D.”

Doctors have to be careful, though, because of an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart attacks associated with sleep disorders.

Some restless leg syndrome patients also have sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition that causes them to stop breathing during sleep, interrupting normal sleep patterns and causing drowsiness the next day from lack of sleep. The severity of restless leg syndrome can vary with the seasons because of longer or shorter periods of daylight.

Not just ‘growing pains’

Children can also suffer with restless leg syndrome, which some parents dismiss as “growing pains.” Doctors usually identify it through a blood test that identifies low levels of iron, and a family history of the syndrome.

Some cases can be so hard to solve that Boero calls on other specialists, or is called by them, to discuss cases in detail.

“I don’t think most people have a sense of how we handle complicated cases that don’t respond to common treatments,” he said. “It can take six months to a year for us to see how an individual may respond to different treatments.”

Divorce, job losses can result

“People with complicated cases of restless leg syndrome are desperate,” Boero said. “When people are up all night, it causes a lot of suffering that in itself is significant. But it can also lead to divorce, and people can lose their jobs. How can you function if you go night after night without enough sleep?”

For more information about restless leg syndrome, contact your personal physician.

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