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Treating restless leg syndrome

10 July 2018

Sleep medicine
Have you ever been in a movie or on a flight and your legs become itchy, uncomfortable or even painful? For most, getting up and moving your legs usually gets rid of these sensations but for others it can be a sign of restless leg syndrome.

What is restless leg syndrome?

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) occurs when you develop an urge to move your legs, whether it’s a pain, an itch or some sort of discomfort – everyone describes it differently.

Moving your legs makes it feel better, at least for a time.

Dr Scott Phung says some people experience RLS at night only, but for others it can get worse throughout the day.

“Some people can’t lie in bed for very long because they get this really bad restless leg and they have to get up and walkaround,” Dr Phung says.

Why does restless leg syndrome occur?

Medical professionals are still uncertain as to the cause of RLS for many patients, but sometimes they can get to the root of the problem.

Common secondary causes include iron deficiency, excessive caffeine, smoking and alcohol. It could also indicate a sign of diabetes, thyroid or kidney diseases.

“Our first step is to rule out these conditions,” Dr Phung says.

“Magnesium supplements taken before bedtime can be simple to trial.

“Hot packs and cold packs can also be effective, as can a shower or exercise, or simple analgesia, such as Panadol.”

What happens if these treatments don’t work?

“There are more powerful medications we can use if you have a severe case of RLS,” Dr Phung says.

“Unfortunately, some of these have debilitating side effects and patients can develop a tolerance to them so they become less effective.

“The solution is often a rotation, or combination, of medications to continue to treat the condition.”

What is the difference between RLS and periodic leg movement syndrome (PLMS)?

Both these conditions are very similar although PLMS is repetitive involuntary movements of your leg which occur during sleep.

“PLMS and RLS are linked, as a large proportion of the people with RLS have PLMS, and vice versa,” Dr Phung says.

“The underlying secondary causes are very similar and the treatment is exactly the same.”

Scott Phung - Respiratory and Sleep Physician

Dr Scott Phung is the Managing Director at the new Sleep Laboratory run by Sleep Studies Australia at St John of God Murdoch Hospital. He has experience in all areas of adult sleep medicine with particular interest in sleep apnoea, narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome.

Scott Phung Respiratory and Sleep Physician