Acupuncture for Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a fairly common disorder characterised by unpleasant sensations in the legs combined with an overwhelming urge to move the legs in order to try to get some relief. In many cases the symptoms can be particularly troublesome at night, thus interfering with sleep. Whilst for some people with a mild form of the problem, restless leg syndrome is not much more than an inconvenience, for others it can seriously impair their quality of life, particularly through causing fatigue due to lack of sleep.
In many cases the cause of restless leg syndrome, from a western medical perspective, is unknown. However, it can be related to various other conditions including anaemia and diabetes. It also sometimes occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy. Since the problem is apparently associated with an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, especially a neurotransmitter called dopamine, sometimes the condition is treated with medications which increase the levels of dopamine.
Restless Legs and TCM
As with all other diseases, no two cases of restless legs are exactly the same, and so TCM treatment is individualised to the precise way in which each person experiences the problem. Furthermore, restless leg syndrome is usually seen as part of a more general health imbalance in the individual concerned, and is perhaps simply the most troublesome and noticeable manifestation of that imbalance. This is why we start with a detailed consultation which enables us to understand in detail why a particular person suffers in the way they do, and then treat them on this basis.
For example, restless legs is quite often seen as part of an imbalance characterised by a lack of ‘Yin’. In Chinese Medicine, and in traditional Chinese thought in general, harmony is achieved through a dynamic balance of Yin and Yang, which represents the basic duality inherent in all life. In nature Yang is fire and Yin water, Yang is daytime and Yin night, Yang is the sky and Yin is the earth. Yang is active, light, warm and rising, Yin is receptive, dark, cool and sinking. Harmony exists when Yin and Yang are in a state of dynamic balance, continually transforming into each other as the night follows the day. In the human individual Yin represents our deeper reservoirs of energy, and it broadly corresponds to the parasympathetic nervous system. Because Yin is associated with night-time, problems which arise from Yin deficiency tend to manifest at night. In particular, when we would naturally be quiet and still, we can become restless and agitated. Restless legs and insomnia, as well as symptoms like night sweats and anxiety, are typical of Yin deficiency.
Yin can become depleted when we have been ‘running on empty’ – using up our reserves of energy without replenishing them properly; modern lifestyles are tailor made to produce Yin deficiency! We treat Yin deficiency with acupuncture and perhaps herbal medicine; we might also discuss ways in which you can make some small changes to your diet to help with this process.
Of course, there are other patterns of disharmony that can cause restless leg syndrome. Your clinician aims to define the specific pattern that is at the root of your particular circumstances.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the Treatment of Restless Leg Syndrome?
There have been two Chinese studies1,2 of the use of acupuncture to treat restless leg syndrome; both reported that at least 70% of patients treated with acupuncture and/or electro acupuncture were either cured or significantly improved in terms of being able to sleep and experiencing symptoms less frequently and less severely.
- Wang DY (1994) Observation on clinic effect of galvano-acupuncture on restless leg syndrome Journal of Gansu College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Gansu Zhongyi Xueyuan Xuebao). 1994 March; 11(1): 46
- Yang YD (1993) Treatment of restive leg syndromes with body acupuncture and ear acupuncture Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Zhongguo Zhenjiu). 1993 June; 13(3): 13-14