Specific limb: A brief look at ‘restless legs syndrome’

Those that know me well often comment that I have a general inability to sit still and that I am a ‘fidget’. (This is not necessarily a bad thing and in fact there are some positives to fidgeting that I outlined in a previous blog on bad behaviours that are sometimes good for you). There is certainly some truth to the observation that I fidget but sometimes the fidgeting is out of my control. Every few weeks my right lower leg appears to take on a life of its own and I will get strange (uncomfortable) sensations (such as tingling, itching, and aching, and occasionally cramp-like feelings) that force me to move my right leg and foot around. It only happens when I am in a resting and relaxing state and usually lasts about 30 minutes (but can occasionally last much longer). On occasions it disrupts my work and sleep but I find that just getting up and moving around is sometimes enough to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings.

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A few years ago I Googled my ‘symptoms’ and was surprised to find that I am not the only person who appears to experience such effects and that there is a whole medical literature on what has been termed ‘restless legs syndrome’ although in my case it would be in a singular rather than plural form). I’ve had the condition for about 15 years now and it may be related to some of the medication I take for an unrelated chronic degenerative health condition that I have. According to the Wikipedia entry on restless legs syndrome (RLS):

“The first known medical description of RLS was by Sir Thomas Willis in 1672. Willis emphasized the sleep disruption and limb movements experienced by people with RLS…The term ‘fidgets in the legs’ has also been used as early as the early nineteenth century. Subsequently, other descriptions of RLS were published, including those by Francois Boissier de Sauvages (1763), Magnus Huss (1849), Theodur Wittmaack (1861), George Miller Beard (1880), Georges Gilles de la Tourette (1898), Hermann Oppenheim (1923) and Frederick Gerard Allison (1943). However, it was not until almost three centuries after Willis, in 1945, that Karl-Axel Ekbom (1907–1977) provided a detailed and comprehensive report of this condition in his doctoral thesis, Restless legs: clinical study of hitherto overlooked disease. Ekbom coined the term “restless legs” and continued work on this disorder throughout his career. He described the essential diagnostic symptoms, differential diagnosis from other conditions, prevalence, relation to anemia, and common occurrence during pregnancy. Ekbom’s work was largely ignored until it was rediscovered by Arthur S. Walters and Wayne A. Hening in the 1980s. Subsequent landmark publications include 1995 and 2003 papers, which revised and updated the diagnostic criteria”.

As well as being referred to as RLS, it is sometimes referred to as Willis-Ekbom Disease or Willis-Ekbom Syndrome. Since being ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s, there have been a lot of scientific papers published on the phenomenon although many of these are medical case studies (I don’t think my own experiences are extreme enough or strong enough to appear in any medical textbook. The Wikipedia entry on RLS provides a good summary of what is known medically and empirically:

“Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes a strong urge to move one’s legs. There is often an unpleasant feeling in the legs that improves somewhat with moving them. Occasionally the arms may also be affected. The feelings generally happen when at rest and therefore can make it hard to sleep. Due to the disturbance in sleep, people with RLS may have daytime sleepiness, low energy, irritability, and a depressed mood. Additionally, many have limb twitching during sleep. Risk factors for RLS include low iron levels, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and pregnancy. A number of medications may also trigger the disorder including antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines, and calcium channel blockers. There are two main types. One is early onset RLS which starts before age 45 [years], runs in families and worsens over time. The other is late onset RLS which begins after age 45 [years], starts suddenly, and does not worsen. Diagnosis is generally based on a person’s symptoms after ruling out other potential causes… Females are more commonly affected than males and it becomes more common with age…Some doctors express the view that the incidence of restless leg syndrome is exaggerated by manufacturers of drugs used to treat it. Others believe it is an under-recognized and undertreated disorder…An association has been observed between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and RLS or periodic limb movement disorder. Both conditions appear to have links to dysfunctions related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, and common medications for both conditions among other systems, affect dopamine levels in the brain”.

According to a review by Dr. Richard Allen and Dr. Christopher Earley in the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology, RLS affects 2.5-15% of the US population. In another review on sleep disorder in the journal American Family Physician, Dr. Kannan Ramar and Dr. Eric Olson reported that RLS is typically characterized by four essential features: These are:

“(1) the intense urge to move the legs, usually accompanied or caused by uncomfortable sensations (e.g., “creepy crawly,” aching) in the legs; (2) symptoms that begin or worsen during periods of rest or inactivity; (3) symptoms that are partially or totally relieved by movements such as walking or stretching; and (4) symptoms that are worse or only occur in the evening or at night”.

Various online articles and papers report a variety of potential treatments based on the notion that RLS might be caused by a dopamine imbalance in the body. Some medics advise a regular sleep routine (such as that advised for those with insomnia), and cutting out the drinking of alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes. Pharmacological treatments include the use of drugs that are also used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease such as L-DOPA and pramipexole, and the use of magnesium sulphate therapy (as reported in a 2006 paper in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine – magnesium is known to be a natural muscle relaxant). In a 2011 issue of the journal Sleep Medicine, In an online article about RLS, Dr Michael Platt, author of the 2014 book Adrenalin Dominance, claims that RLS sufferers can be treated using a progesterone cream:

“Excess adrenalin during the night can cause restless leg syndrome. People often have associated symptoms also resulting from elevated adrenalin, such as teeth grinding, the need to urinate, and tossing and turning, and they often awaken in the morning with low back pain. Characteristically, RLS patients have an excess of adrenaline, may toss and turn all night, be quick to anger, might be workaholics, will usually have fibromyalgia (aches and pains – low back, side of the hips, and grind their teeth), they might drink too much, and will be hypoglycemic (sleepy between 3-4 p.m. or when in a car), and so on. There is an associated over-production of insulin and an under-production of progesterone…[By using a progesterone cream] I have had 100% success with eliminating RLS by getting hormones into balance, often within the first week. Patients feel more relaxed, they can sleep at night, rage disappears, and they can focus more easily”.

Dr. Luis Marin and his colleagues reported a different treatment for RLS altogether. They reported the case of a 41-year-old male RLS sufferer who after being on medication for RLS discovered his own solution – having sex. Following sex, the man reported that all RLS symptoms would disappear. Marin and colleagues speculated that the release of dopamine following orgasm might alleviate RLS symptoms. This appears to be a reasonable speculation given the findings of research published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Dr. Gert Holstege and his colleagues who examined brain activation at the point of ejaculation. In their paper they reported the similarity between ejaculation and using heroin in terms of brain activation:

“We used positron emission tomography to measure increases in regional cerebral blood flow during ejaculation compared with sexual stimulation in heterosexual male volunteers. Manual penile stimulation was performed by the volunteer’s female partner. Primary activation was found in the mesodiencephalic transition zone, including the ventral tegmental area, which is involved in a wide variety of rewarding behaviors. Parallels are drawn between ejaculation and heroin rush”.

It could well be that the increase in dopamine following ejaculation acts in a similar way to the medications that are given to RLS sufferers. Of all the treatments for RLS that I have read about, I think I know which one I would prefer!

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allen, R.P., & Earley, C.J. (2001). Restless legs syndrome: A review of clinical and pathophysiologic features. Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology, 18(2), 128-147.

Bartell S1, Zallek S. Intravenous magnesium sulfate may relieve restless legs syndrome in pregnancy. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15, 187-188.

Chaudhuri, K.R., Appiah-Kubi, L.S., & Trenkwalder, C. (2001). Restless legs syndrome. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 71(2), 143-146.

Ekbom, K., & Ulfberg, J. (2009). Restless legs syndrome. Journal of Internal Medicine, 266(5), 419-431.

Holstege, G., Georgiadis, J. R., Paans, A. M., Meiners, L. C., van der Graaf, F. H., & Reinders, A. S. (2003). Brain activation during human male ejaculation. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9185-9193

Leschziner, G., & Gringras, P. (2012). Restless legs syndrome. British Medical Journal, 344, e3056.

Marin, L.F., Felicio, A.C., & Prado, G.F. (2011). Sexual intercourse and masturbation: Potential relief factors for restless legs syndrome? Sleep Medicine, 12(4), 422.

Ondo, W. G. (2009). Restless legs syndrome. Neurologic Clinics, 27(3), 779-799.

Ramar, K; Olson, EJ (Aug 15, 2013). Management of common sleep disorders. American Family Physician, 88, 231–238.

Satija, P., & Ondo, W. G. (2008). Restless legs syndrome. CNS Drugs, 22(6), 497-518.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 18, 2016, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Gender differences, Pain, Physiological disorders, Sex, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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