Surveys in the United States and Canada have found that 15 to 25 percent of adults experience unpleasant feelings in their legs especially at night, at least some of the time. The problem appears to be more common in women than in men, and especially prevalent in the elderly.
According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, people describe the sensation as feeling like an electrical current flowing through the legs, a "creepy crawly" feeling, aching or itching bones, a sensation "like Coca-Cola bubbling through the veins," "crazy legs," and "the gotta moves." If this sounds all too familiar to you, chances are you have restless legs syndrome.
The condition, also known as Ekbom syndrome, is usually a chronic annoyance rather than a symptom of a larger disorder.
"Typically both lower legs are affected, although the thighs and even the arms can be involved," says Lawrence Z. Stern, M.D. It's not always symmetrical; sometimes it occurs in only one limb.
The origin of the sensations is unknown. Some researchers suspect that an imbalance in the brain's chemistry may be the root cause of the problem. A problem with iron metabolism may also be a contributor, and genetics are thought to play a role.
Whatever the cause, restless legs syndrome can be very frustrating to those who have it, and it can significantly interfere with sleep. Here are a few steps to quiet those jumpy legs.
If you have restless legs syndrome, you probably don't have anything to worry about—except the sleep it sometimes causes you to miss.
But if you're experiencing symptoms for the first time—pronounced sensations in the legs, usually at night—see your doctor. The symptoms of restless legs syndrome can be warning signs for serious medical problems such as lung disease, kidney disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and many neurological disorders.
So for safety—not to mention peace of mind—let your doctor make the diagnosis.
Also, if crawly legs are keeping you up at night and home remedies just aren't helping, your doctor may be able to prescribe something to help. Certain medications that act on brain chemistry have been shown to decrease the actual movements of the legs and patients' perceptions of unpleasant sensations, according to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.
Richard K. Olney, M.D., is a professor of clinical neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Ronald F. Pfeiffer, M.D., is professor, vice chairman, and director in the department of neurology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
Lawrence Z. Stern, M.D., is a professor of neurology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.