Restless Legs in History

Perhaps because it so recently came to public attention, there is no small amount of controversy surrounding restless leg syndrome. There’s a widespread perception that it’s an invented illness, devised in order to create a market for drugs to treat it. However, sufferers say it is a real disorder which seriously interferes with quality of life for them.

Also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, RLS is characterized by the urge to move your legs, especially when you aren’t otherwise active. It’s not simply boredom—it’s an uncomfortable, almost itchy feeling in the legs for which the only relief to be had is to move them. It’s particularly disruptive for someone who is sitting down and relaxing, or who is trying to sleep; the symptoms are always worse in the evening or at night. Often, people who show signs of RLS also have a condition called periodic limb movement in sleep, which causes twitching of limbs that interferes with the ability to get a full night’s sleep.

There are some common misconceptions about RLS. Since healthcare providers are typically unable to find anything wrong, there is a strong tendency to conclude that RLS exists entirely in the patient’s head—or that the urge to move is a common one, turned into an ailment by some pharmaceutical company’s profit motive. However, in addition to preventing adequate sleep, it can interfere with getting anything done during the day.

The condition is often thought of as new, but it was in fact described in 1672 by the creator of the field of clinical neuroscience, Thomas Willis, who focused on the sleep symptoms. Other doctors discussed RLS as a sleep disorder—because that’s when the restlessness is most prominent. However, in 1945, then-student Karl-Axel Ekbom, who in fact coined the term “restless leg,” described the condition overall, including diagnostic elements and visible symptoms.

There is no cure for RLS; however, there are medical treatments, not all of which are advertised on television. Many drugs used to fight Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy are also effective against RLS. Muscle relaxants can also help quiet the urges.

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