You’ve had a long day, and you’re tired. You get ready for bed, crawl in, and wait for sweet sleep to arrive. Only instead of drifting off to dreamland, your legs come alive. You may want to sleep, but your legs want to dance, and twitch, and jump. This is the reality of Restless Leg Syndrome, which affects somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of the population.
While the cause is unknown, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is considered to be a neurological disorder. It’s characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, jumping, twitching, or a deep crawly or bubbly sensation in your legs. Symptoms are almost always worse at night when your legs are at rest. In most cases, both legs are involved, and the symptoms usually involve the lower legs and calves.
In Chinese medicine, restless legs are usually diagnosed as a Qi depletion or internal wind. Let me explain:
Qi Depletion. Your body runs on energy, which we practitioners call Qi. That Qi is responsible for keeping you alive by warming your body, protecting it from outside invaders (immunity), fueling movement, transforming food into nutrients, and holding things in place. With Restless Leg Syndrome, the holding function of your Qi is not up to par. Think about it–your blood is held in the vessels, your organs are held in place, and your bodily wastes are held until you’re ready to release them. As a practitioner, patients who bruise easily, have incontinence, frequent miscarriages, or prolapsed organs would be diagnosed as having a malfunction of the holding function of Qi. With restless legs, depending on accompanying signs and symptoms, you might be diagnosed as having a Qi depletion–or not enough Qi to hold your legs still.
Internal Wind. In Chinese medicine, wind is considered to be movement where there shouldn’t be any. In most cases, it comes from a depletion of Yin or Blood–both nourishing and moistening substances in your body. The moistening nature of both Yin and Blood balances the warmth, activity, and dryness of Yang and keeps it in check. When Yin or Blood become depleted, Yang obecomes overpowering and can create movement. Think of this imbalance as a dry farmer’s field. With any little movement or heat, the soil is whipped up into dust clouds and dirt devils. When either Yin or Blood become depleted, you might experience signs of dryness, such as dry skin, brittle nails, or dry hair. You are also likely to have signs of unwanted movement, such as dizziness, vertigo, twitches, tremors–and restless legs that want to move at night.
In treating Restless Leg Syndrome with Chinese medicine, your practitioner would first need to make an accurate diagnosis. With both Qi depletion and internal wind, the underlying imbalance comes from some kind of depletion, so the strategy would be to build your body back up. This is likely to include acupuncture, the use of an herbal formula, and food therapy, as rebuilding usually takes a many-faceted approach.
It would also be helpful to your practitioner if you kept track of what factors made your symptoms better or worse. Some things to try include:
-Try warming or cooling. For some people warming their legs with a heating pad seems to help their symptoms. For others, soaking their feet and legs in cool (not cold!) water before bed calms them down.
-Rule out a vitamin or mineral deficiency by taking a good multivitamin/mineral supplement. Suspected deficiencies include iron and folate.
-Don’t eat a large meal late in the day or right before going to bed. If you have a Qi depletion, all your energy will go toward digestion instead of calming and holding things still.
-Experiment with cutting out alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol can interrupt your sleep, and caffeine is an energetically warm and active food.
-Pay attention to the stress in your life, and if you’re ringing the stress bell, do something about it. The bottom line is that stress makes everything worse.
-Make sure you’re getting plenty of rest. Many people with restless legs say their symptoms are worse when they’re fatigued.
-To balance the rest/work cycle, make sure you’re getting some gentle exercise daily. Activities such as walking, biking, swimming, or Yoga help to get your body moving without depleting it further.
-Before bedtime, experiment with a short walk, stretching, or gentle self-massage. Some people get relief from one or all of these.
-Finally, while you’re in bed try changing sleeping positions when your legs are acting up. There are some people who only have restless leg symptoms in certain positions.