Help Guide, a nonprofit source of health information, reports that one in 10 people suffer from restless leg syndrome, or RLS, and yet much of the medical community is not educated on this serious neurological disorder. Exercise is often suggested as a method of relieving RLS symptoms, but some people find that exercise makes the symptoms worse. Experts suggest several reasons this might be true.
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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, an agency of the National Institutes of Health, defines restless leg syndrome as a neurological disorder. Sufferers feel sensations in their legs they describe with words, such as pressure, tingling, prickling or creeping. These feelings may range from annoying to disabling. Movement brings relief, but often only for a few seconds. The condition is typically worse at night and interferes with restful sleep.
The symptoms of RLS tend to disappear with movement and come back during relaxation. People with restless legs syndrome have the unpleasant sensations disappear during their exercise sessions only to come back after exercise is finished. It may feel like the symptoms are worse, but they may seem worse only by comparison to their absence. People may also be less active after exercise as they rest, and the lower level of muscle activity makes the symptoms worse.
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Restless leg syndrome is worse at night, often showing no symptoms at all in the morning. People who exercise in the late afternoon or evening may be exercising during the symptom activity threshold by coincidence. RLS symptoms seem to start after exercise, but in reality would have had the same onset of sensations if they hadn't exercised.
The causes of restless leg syndrome are not well understood by the medical community, but evidence points to reduced levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Although exercise can increase dopamine levels, which is why moderate exercise is an effective therapy for restless leg syndrome, very intense exercise can have the opposite effect. The wellness site Run With It reports that overtraining saps the body of dopamine which contributes to sleep disruption. This will also cause worsening of RLS symptoms.
Regular, moderate exercise is an important treatment for RLS. If exercise seems to be making the symptoms worse, try reducing the intensity of your workouts to see if you are overtraining. If that doesn't help, it may be beneficial to move your exercise earlier in the day or trying to stay active after workout sessions. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol have been shown to contribute to RLS symptoms so reducing or eliminating these should help. Consult your doctor about dietary changes to correct deficiencies in iron, folic acid or magnesium.