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Symptomatology: Case of the Restless Legs

2 minute read

Legs ache? Do they pull, draw, get numb, tingle, prickle or feel as if ants were crawling on or under the skin? Relax, say a group of Mayo Clinic doctors who have studied the problem. There is probably nothing much wrong with the legs, and nothing to be done but submit to the urge to walk it off.

Among 27 such complaints, Mayo’s Dr. Colum A. Gorman and his colleagues found that the sensation was often felt deep inside the leg; in nearly all cases, it was between ankle and knee, but in a few it involved the thighs and feet. The only diagnosis, the doctors concluded, was “restless legs.” A 70-year-old priest was unique in also having “restless hands.”

What the patients had in common, the Mayo doctors report in the Archives of Internal Medicine, was the absence of any ascertainable disease that would clearly explain their trouble. The problem developed only rarely during the day, almost invariably when the victim was in bed. Then it was severe enough to awaken the sufferer, who could not get back to sleep until he had walked for a while. Some said they waked and walked as many as ten times a night.

Mayo’s Neurologist Peter J. Dyck checked the patients for possible nerve disorders; none were significant. The researchers found, as they expected, that most of the restless-leg patients were anxious or depressed, and most of them had more severe episodes at times of stress. Men and women are likely to be affected at any age, and it may be that as much as 5% of the population suffers occasional touches of the disorder, though not severe enough to send the sufferers to a doctor.

No drug or other treatment seems to have any effect, and doctors are no nearer to finding a cause or cure for restless legs than they were three centuries ago when the symptom was first reported by English Physician Thomas Willis.* The only practical prescription remains unchanged: wake up and walk.

*Who won immortality by discovering and describing the blood flow in brain arteries that are now known as “the Circle of Willis.”

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