This symptom is highly prevalent among people living with multiple sclerosis
Restless leg syndrome, also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, is described as an unpleasant or uncomfortable sensation in the legs along with an irresistible urge to move them. Symptoms can be described as aches, a feeling of pulling, itching or a sensation of bugs under the skin, tingling, tightness and electrical or jolting sensations. These symptoms commonly occur in the late afternoon or evening and tend to be more severe at night when you’re resting, such as sitting or lying in bed.
The condition can be disruptive to sleep and contribute to the overall fatigue, another common symptom that affects people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Restless leg syndrome is thought to be highly prevalent among MS patients. One study, published in the journal PubMed revealed that among 156 MS patients, 51% met the criteria for restless leg syndrome based on neurological examination and medical interview.
What causes restless leg syndrome?
Research has identified specific genes related to restless legs syndrome, and it can run in families. According to NHS guidelines symptoms usually occur before the age of 40 in these cases.
There is also evidence to suggest restless leg syndrome is related to a problem with a part of the brain called basal ganglia, which uses a chemical (neurotransmitter) called dopamine to help control muscle activity and movement.
Dopamine and restless legs
Dopamine acts as a messenger between the brain and the nervous system to help the brain regulate and co-ordinate movement. If nerve cells become damaged, the amount of dopamine in the brain is reduced, which causes muscle spasms and involuntary movements.
Dopamine levels naturally fall towards the end of the day, which may explain why the symptoms of restless legs syndrome are often worse in the evening and during the night.
Restless leg syndrome can be a secondary condition that can occur as the result of a long term condition such as MS, but also if you have an iron deficiency. Low levels of iron in the blood can lead to a fall in dopamine, with can trigger restless legs.
In MSers restless leg syndrome can be related to abnormalities in neurotransmitters which help regulate muscle movements or the part of the central nervous system that controls automatic movements.
Treatment for restless legs
In the first instance, it is recommended that you should avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, which are all thought to be triggers.
Regular daily exercise and a good sleep routine are also suggested treatments.
During a flare, you can try massaging your legs or taking a hot bath. Applying a hot or cold compress to your leg muscles, taking your mind off it by doing different activities to keep busy, such as reading or watching television. Relaxing exercises such as yoga and tai chi, or walking and stretching can also help provide relief.
Alternatively, there are a number of drugs that can be prescribed to help treat this unwanted symptom, such as Neurontin (gabapentin). This drug is used to treat neuropathic pain, a common symptom in people living with MS.
Benzodiazepines or benzodiazepine agonists, such as Valium (diazepam) and Klonopin (clonazepam) have been used with success in the past, but there is a risk that they can worsen fatigue. These particular drugs are used as a short term treatment because they can become addictive.
There are also medications that can increase dopamine in the brain, such as Requip (ropinirole) and Mirapex (pramipexole). If you are experiencing symptoms it is best to visit your GP or MS nurse who will be able to advise and treat you accordingly.