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Can Restless Leg Syndrome Drive People to Suicide?

It's time to take restless leg syndrome seriously. When people can't get relief, they may become anxious, depressed and desperate.
Can Restless Leg Syndrome Drive People to Suicide?
Close up Bare Feet of a Young Woman Lying Down on a Blue Bed Captured in High Angle View.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) may not sound like a serious problem unless you have experienced it. People who suffer with it, however, often find it very hard to live with. As soon as they try to relax, their legs begin to itch, ache, throb or feel as though bugs were crawling on them. The feeling of pulling, tugging, burning or irritation inside the legs eases only when the sufferer moves the legs around. Some people get up and pace the floor, others climb stairs or jerk their legs in bed. One woman described a situation in which she ended up literally kicking her husband out of the bed. Because of her endless thrashing, he had to sleep in another room.

Sufferers may get very little sleep. This is not merely uncomfortable. For some people, these relentless symptoms may trigger depression and thoughts of suicide.

What Does Restless Leg Syndrome Feel Like?

Here are some ways readers have described their RLS experience:

“As I think back to The Wizard of Oz, when the house fell on the wicked witch, her legs curled up under her. That is the way I describe RLS. Just sort of a creepy feeling.”

Another person explained:

“My father and sister have RLS. It never occurred to me that I did too, since my leg discomfort occurred both day and night. Years ago, I happened on a product containing choline that relieves RLS symptoms for me. If I take it daily, I am able to sleep comfortably at night and do not have the daytime symptoms of aching, tingling, and needing to stretch or move my legs.”

This reader had more trouble finding a solution:

“I have had an extreme case of RLS for several years. I have tried increasing calcium, magnesium and vitamin D, leg and full-body massages, diet changes, exercising and increasing my water intake. Nothing helped.

“My symptoms increased after a hip replacement 10 years ago. The doctor prescribed Requip and then Mirapex. However, the side effects are difficult to adjust to and make normal life activities dangerous. Plus, they do not relieve my symptoms enough to sleep more than a few hours. Out of desperation, I recently tried CBD oils and medical marijuana. The CBD oil helped very little, but the marijuana worked amazingly well within a few minutes, and I slept soundly for the first time in years! I will definitely be searching for a holistic doctor to pursue a medical marijuana prescription.”

Medications for Restless Leg Syndrome:

Years ago, a woman wrote to us about a solution for RLS:

“My husband has suffered from RLS for as long as I have known him. Until several years ago we didn’t even know it had a legitimate name. We called it ‘leg-i-tis’!

“He tried everything he could think of-calcium, magnesium, quinine, etc. His doctor told him to march around the house until it stopped. (This was usually done in the middle of the night since that was when it occurred.) It would start right back up when he laid down to try to sleep.

“I was watching ‘Good Morning America’ a while ago and heard about RLS. The doctor said a medication called Mirapex works.

“My husband’s doctor prescribed it for him and it has been a miracle for us. I say us because his horrible condition kept us both from sleeping.”

Pramipexole (Mirapex) is a medicine used to treat Parkinson’s disease. The FDA has also approved it to treat restless leg syndrome. The agency has also approved another drug for Parkinson’s disease, ropinirole (Requip), for treating RLS. 

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In one study, a low dose (1.8 mg) of Requip reduced the average number of leg twitches in sufferers from 49 per hour to just 12. The placebo was no match for this drug.

Side Effects of Medications for RLS:

No single solution works for everyone with this neurological condition. While ropinirole (Requip) or pramipexole (Mirapex) can ease RLS for many people, others find the side effects are worse than the original disease.

The most common side effects of both Mirapex and Requip include nausea and dizziness. Daytime fatigue or sleepiness is also a risk and makes driving or operating machinery dangerous. Other serious side effects include lightheadedness upon sitting or standing up. This can lead to fainting. Hallucinations and bizarre behavior as well as compulsive behavior such as gambling, binge eating, compulsive shopping or sexual promiscuity can cause people a lot of distress.

We got this report of such a reaction:

“I was on ropinirole for many years to relieve my RLS. Then I began crazy, unexplained compulsive spending on large, unnecessary, and expensive items. Later I began compulsive gambling.

The Effects of Restless Leg Syndrome on Mental Health:

Needless to say, restless leg syndrome may take a heavy toll on victims’ sleep and emotional well-being. A recent study in JAMA Network Open (Aug. 23, 2019) found that people with RLS were substantially more likely to harm themselves or attempt suicide than those without it. 

Obviously, such a serious situation requires medical attention. Not everyone will be quite so desperate, however. We don’t want to downplay the gravity of RLS, but we do want to offer some other possible approaches.

Home remedies, while not scientific, do seem to help some people:

“Any time I take an antihistamine, my legs begin to jerk. The first time it happened, I had to get up out of bed and do jumping jacks, because it affected my arms as well. Now I avoid antihistamines, and I sleep with a bar of soap under the sheet near my legs.”

Another reader uses a dietary supplement:

“I too have suffered the overwhelming desire to move my legs again and again when sleeping. It’s worse when I’m tense or over tired. Trying to stay still just makes it worse. I find that a little melatonin helps. Now, I rarely need to use it.”

Other home remedies range from putting soap under the bottom sheet to swallowing a teaspoon of mustard when the feelings begin. You may find this post helpful.

Regardless of the treatment, the research demonstrates that everyone should take restless leg syndrome seriously.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Citations
  • Zhuang S et al, "Association of Restless Legs Syndrome with risk of suicide and self-harm." JAMA Network Open, Aug. 23, 2019. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.9966
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