Acupuncture – A Cure For Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

BACKGROUND

I am 41, British, and have had Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) all my adult life. I can not remember when I felt the first twinges, so it must have been gradual. My paternal grandmother suffered from RLS. I remember, when visiting my grandparents in Birmingham (United Kingdom) as a child, Nana would mention these mysterious 'fidgets' (as she called them), which kept her awake at night. I would remove her slippers and give her an inexpert foot massage, which she always said made her feel better. However, I suspect she was sparing my feelings, as in my experience a massage rarely brings relief. Indeed, whenever I have a particularly bad spell, I have to resist the urge to chop the wayward trotters off!

So what is Restless Leg Syndrome? Very briefly, it is an overpowering urge to move, in order to get rid of an exceedingly unpleasant feeling, described in turn as a crawling, itching, antsy sensation, to name but a few. As well as the legs, the condition can also affect the feet, ankles and / or wrists (and no doubt other areas as well) when they are at rest. So it can occur when you are trying to sleep, distract you when you are at the cinema, reading a book, on a plane, at a desk, or at the table having a meal. It disappears whenever you are active – walking, jogging, baking, hanging the clothes on the line, etc.

So in my case it is genetic – my father also suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome, as does my younger brother. My dad feels it in his ankles, my brother in his wrists and me in my feet. My dad only gets it when watching television, strangely enough. I get it at night, and when it is particularly bad, I get little or no sleep. Luckily my partner has not yet stomped out of the bedroom in search of a more restful bed companion. Oftentimes, though, I do move to the sofa for the night.

MY RLS SYMPTOMS WORSEN

I am currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the Syndrome has got particularly bad during April, which is the hottest month of the year. Despite the air conditioning, I have also begun to feel it in my wrists. I tried reflexology (foot massages), but it was agony. To the massagers' consternation my feet would leap out of their hands as the crawling sensations caused by their kneading became unbearable. What was meant to be a relaxing hour routinely turned into an ordeal. I think the sessions did help at first, but I got to dread them and so I dropped them altogether. It was doubly off-putting to see my partner fall asleep during his reflexology sessions, wake and stretch an hour later, briskly strap his sandals back on and walk jauntily back out onto the bustling street, whistling through his teeth. I felt like a ragged doll. My only consolation was that my wretched feet now felt as smooth and soft as (surely) the day I was born.

Things came to a head when I started getting the fidgets during the day. This is the time when I normally catch up on my sleep, but a few days ago this became impossible. I was very concerned indeed, especially as symptoms can worsen with age. My partner began surfing the internet to find out more (I stopped bothering as anything I read on the subject stated the cause of the Syndrome to be unknown with no known cure). My partner eventually found a testimonial from a female sufferer in the UK whose acupuncture sessions have partially cured her condition. 'Partially' because she says her fidgets do flare up occasionally, and that she has to go back for the odd treatment. After more searching, my partner came up with the name of a Doctor Petchara of the Christian McCormick Hospital in Chiang Mai (Christian because it was founded in 1889 by Presbyterian missionaries and named after Mrs Cyruss McCormick of Chicago who funded the main hospital building in 1925 ). Dr Petchara's described as offering 'a highly-rated acupuncture service for walk-in patients ". Furthermore, she studied in China and' her command of medical-related English is excellent '.

Unfortunately, when we went to McCormick hospital to see Dr Petchara, we found the acupuncture unit being fully renovated, and were subsequently told that it would only reopen on 19 April (2010). This was too long for me to wait, and so the nurse recommended the Ramkhamhaeng Hospital (referred to locally as the 'RAM') in Chiang Mai. We therefore drove over there on our motorbike and I duly registered at Reception. I filled out the form, handed my passport over to be photocopied, and was then directed to the SURGERY counter, where I made an appointment to see the acupuncturist, Dr Tosaporn Wittayakhom, at 11 o'clock the following morning. I was assured that the doctor spoke good English. It was all very efficient – the whole thing took 15 minutes. I was even told that I could get an appointment that same afternoon; I declined, however – my partner and I were hot and sweaty and thirsty by this time, and we just wanted to cool off in the pool with a good smoothie.

ENERGY-BOOSTING ACUPUNCTURE SESSION

6 April 2010

I presented myself at the SURGERY counter at 10.45 the following morning, and was promptly taken away to be weighed (which I could have done without – I had just finished breakfast), and have my blood pressure taken. I was then escorted to Dr Tosaporn's office promptly at 11am, where he spent 15 minutes asking me questions, with the nurse sitting in. He said that I was the first patient to come to him for RLS, and that although he knew of the Syndrome, he had never been asked to treat it. As he had to read up on the condition further, the appointment was postponed until the 8th April.

As I did not want to leave empty-handed (as it were), I asked him to give me a session to increase my energy levels (I was drooping with the heat). I subsequently climbed on to the bed as directed and lay on my back. He placed the needles on top of my head and behind my ears, on my stomach, calves and feet, and stimulated four of the needles in my lower limbs further with some kind of electric pulse, which I have never seen before. The doctor left me there for 20 minutes, came back accompanied by the nurse and carefully removed the needles, disinfecting each area as he went. He told me I should feel the effects the next day – and that the session would quite probably help me sleep.

RLS-TARGETED ACUPUNCTURE SESSION

8 April (two days later)

Well, the doctor was right – the energy-boosting acupuncture session did help me. I got two great nights' sleep. Not a single fidget, and I feel relaxed and alert.

This morning I went for my fidget-related acupuncture session. They weighed me again and took my blood pressure, and I was escorted, as before, to Dr Tosaporn's office for 11am sharp. We chatted about how I was feeling, and then perceiving that all was well, he asked me to lie down – on my front this time. He placed the needles on my back and legs, and four were again electrically stimulated. 20 minutes later he came back with the nurse, removed the needles and disinfected the corresponding areas. My next acupuncture session is set for 11am on 20 April.

9 April

Last night I went to sleep seamlessly, but woke up with mild RLS in the early hours of this morning. I am disappointed, but I did go back to sleep quite quickly, which is unusual. I may need multiple acupuncture sessions. It's ironic that the energy-boosting treatment worked better for my fidgets than the RLS-targeted one; maybe I should concentrate on the former and drop the latter. I will just have to wait and see how my next appointment goes.

CONCLUSION

I understand that Restless Leg Syndrome takes on average 2 years to diagnose. In light of this, if you suffer from RLS (or think you might) and are considering seeing an acupuncturist, you may like to print out the clinical paper "Treatment of 49 Cases of Restless Legs Syndrome by Acupuncture plus Acupoint Injection" published in the Journal of Acupuncture and Tuina Science. Only the preview page is available for free, but it is possible to purchase and download the article on-line in its entirety.

Alternatively, you can simply print out the section on Acupoints (reproduced below) which indicates where to place the needles. This will be particularly useful if your Acupuncturist is unfamiliar with the Syndrome:

"Acupoints: Yanglingquan (GB 34) , Jinggu (BL 64), Chengshan (BL 57), Chengjin (BL 56) and Shangqiu (SP 5). Ganshu (BL 18), Shenshu (BL 23) and Taixi (KI 3) were matched to the type of deficiency of liver and kidney yin; Xuehai (SP 10) and Sanyinjiao (SP 6) were matched to the type of cold-dampness entering the interior ".

Finally, one word of caution: it would seem that acupuncture does not work for everyone. Indeed, according to my doctor, only 70% of patients respond to the treatment. That is a pretty good average, but it still leaves a sizeable 30% who do not.

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