restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sensory disorder causing an almost irresistible urge to move the legs. The urge to move is usually due to unpleasant feelings in the legs that occur when at rest. People with RLS use words such as creeping, crawling, tingling, or burning to describe these feelings. Moving the legs eases the feelings, but only for a while. The unpleasant feelings may also occur in the arms.


Effects of RLS

RLS can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. People with RLS often don't get enough sleep and may feel tired and sleepy during the day. This can make it difficult to:


  • Concentrate, making it harder to learn and remember things
  • Work
  • Carry out other usual daily activities
  • Take part in family and social activities

    Not getting enough sleep can also make you feel depressed or have mood swings.


    RLS can range from mild to severe, based on:


  • How much discomfort you have in your legs and arms
  • Whether you feel the need to move around
  • How much relief you get from moving around
  • How much sleep disturbance you have
  • How tired or sleepy you are during the day
  • How often you have symptoms
  • How severe your symptoms are on most days
  • How well you carry out daily activities
  • How angry, depressed, sad, anxious, or irritable you feel

    Types of RLS

    There are two types of RLS:


  • Primary RLS is the most common type of RLS. It is also called idiopathic RLS. "Primary" means the cause is not known. Primary RLS, once it starts, usually becomes a lifelong condition. Over time, symptoms tend to get worse and occur more often, especially if they began in childhood or early in adult life. In milder cases, there may be long periods of time with no symptoms, or symptoms may last only for a limited time.

  • Secondary RLS is RLS that is caused by another disease or condition or, sometimes, from taking certain medicines. Symptoms usually go away when the disease or condition improves, or if the medicine is stopped.

    Periodic limb movement disorder

    Most people with RLS also have a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD is a condition in which a person's legs twitch or jerk uncontrollably about every 10 to 60 seconds. This usually happens during sleep. These movements cause repeated awakenings that disturb or reduce sleep. PLMD usually affects the legs but can also affect the arms.



    RLS can be unpleasant and uncomfortable. However, there are some simple self-care approaches and lifestyle changes that can help in mild cases. RLS symptoms often improve with medical treatment. Research is ongoing to better understand the causes of RLS and to develop better treatments.




    Primary RLS

    In most cases of restless legs syndrome (RLS), no cause can be found. When no cause can be found, the condition is called primary RLS. It is known, however, that primary RLS tends to run in families. People whose parents have RLS are more likely to develop the disorder. This suggests that there may be a genetic link that increases the chance of getting RLS.


    Secondary RLS

    Secondary RLS is RLS that is caused by another disease or condition, or as a side effect of certain medications. Some of the diseases and conditions that can cause RLS are:


  • Iron deficiency (with or without anemia)
  • Kidney failure
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Damage to the nerves in the hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Pregnancy

    RLS is common in pregnant women. It usually occurs during the last 3 months of pregnancy and usually improves or disappears within a few weeks after delivery. However, some women may continue to have symptoms after giving birth or may develop RLS again later in life.


    Some of the types of medicines that can cause RLS are:


  • Antiseizure medicines
  • Antinausea medicines
  • Antidepressants
  • Some cold and allergy medicines
  • RLS symptoms usually go away when the medicine is stopped.

    Certain substances can trigger RLS symptoms or make them worse. These substances include:


  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco

    Who is at risk?

    Restless legs syndrome (RLS) may affect as many as 12 million people in the United States.



    RLS affects both men and women. The disorder occurs more often in women than in men.



    The number of cases of RLS rises with age. Many people with RLS are diagnosed in middle age. But in up to two out of every five cases, the symptoms of RLS begin before age 20. People who develop RLS early in life usually have a family history of the disorder.


    Race/ethnic group

    RLS can affect people of any race or ethnic group. The disorder is more common in persons of northern European descent.



    RLS is common in pregnant women. It usually occurs during the last 3 months of pregnancy and usually improves or disappears within a few weeks after delivery.


    Signs and symptoms

    Restless legs syndrome (RLS) has several major signs and symptoms:


  • An almost irresistible urge to move the legs or arms when sitting or lying down
  • An unpleasant feeling in the legs
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep because of the unpleasant feelings in the legs or arms
  • Daytime sleepiness, which results from a lack of restful sleep due to the repeated limb movements

    Urge to move

    RLS gets its name from the urge to move the legs when sitting or lying down. This urge is due to unpleasant feelings in the legs that are relieved by movement. Typical movements are:


  • Pacing and walking
  • Jiggling the legs
  • Stretching and flexing
  • Tossing and turning
  • Rubbing the legs

    Unpleasant feelings

    The urge to move the legs usually is due to unpleasant feelings in the legs. People with RLS describe these feelings as:


  • Creeping
  • Crawling
  • Pulling
  • Itching
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Aching
  • Painful
  • Hard to describe

    Children may describe RLS symptoms differently than adults.


    The unpleasant feelings in RLS usually occur in the lower leg (calf). But the feelings can occur at any place between the thigh and the ankle and also in the arm. The feelings are worse:


  • When lying down or sitting for a long period of time
  • During the evening or night, more so than during the day

    The unpleasant feelings also:


  • Make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Are not as bad or go away when you move

    Duration and severity

    RLS symptoms tend to get worse over time. They may begin in childhood and develop slowly over several years. People with early symptoms are more likely to have other family members with RLS than people who develop RLS later in life.


    Symptoms tend to worsen faster when RLS occurs later in life. RLS that occurs later in life is also more likely to result from an underlying condition or illness than RLS that occurs early in life.


    People with mild symptoms may only notice them when they are still or awake for a long time, such as on a long airplane trip.



    The way that you describe your symptoms is very important in diagnosing restless legs syndrome (RLS). Your doctor will:


  • Take a complete medical history
  • Do a complete physical examination
  • Order other tests

    The diagnosis of RLS usually requires the following four conditions be present:


  • An urge to move the legs due to an unpleasant feeling in the legs.
  • The urge to move the legs, or the unpleasant feelings in the legs, begins or gets worse when you are at rest or not moving around frequently.
  • The urge to move the legs, or the unpleasant feelings in the legs, is partly or completely relieved by movement (such as walking or stretching) for as long as the movement continues.
  • The urge to move the legs, or the unpleasant feelings in the legs, is worse in the evening and at night, or only occurs in the evening or at night.

    Medical history

    Your doctor will take a medical history and ask questions such as:


  • Can you describe your symptoms?
  • When did your symptoms first begin?
  • When during the day or night do the symptoms usually occur?
  • When are your symptoms worse?
  • Do symptoms interfere with your sleep?

    Your doctor will also ask about your sleep habits, such as:


  • The time you go to bed and get up
  • Your routine before going to bed
  • Noise, light, and interruptions in the room where you sleep
  • Whether you snore

    Your doctor will ask about how you feel during the day, including whether:


  • You are tired and sleepy when you wake up and during the day.
  • You have trouble concentrating.
  • You doze off or have difficulty staying awake doing routine tasks, especially driving.

    Your doctor will ask questions to find out if your symptoms are a result of a possible underlying condition. Questions might include:


  • Do members of your family have similar symptoms?
  • What medicines (over-the-counter and prescription) do you take?
  • Do you snore loudly and frequently?
  • Do you gasp for air during sleep?
  • Do you use caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol?

    Physical exam

    A physical exam is done to:


  • Identify any underlying condition that may cause RLS
  • Rule out other disorders

    Your doctor also will pay special attention to:


  • The nerves in your spinal cord (especially) and legs and arms
  • The blood flow in your legs and arms

    Other tests

    There is no test currently available to diagnose RLS.


    However, blood tests can be used to look for underlying conditions that can cause RLS. These tests check for:


  • Low iron stores or iron deficiency
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Other vitamin and mineral deficiencies


    The goals of treatment for restless legs syndrome (RLS) are to:


  • Relieve symptoms
  • Increase the amount and quality of sleep
  • Treat or correct any underlying condition that may cause RLS

    Types of treatment include:


  • Lifestyle changes and other nondrug treatments
  • Medicines

    Lifestyle changes and other nondrug treatments

    Lifestyle changes can improve and relieve symptoms of RLS. Lifestyle changes may be the only treatment needed for mild RLS. Some lifestyle changes that may help include:


  • Avoid things that can make symptoms of RLS worse:

  • Tobacco

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine. Chocolate, coffee, tea, and some soft drinks contain caffeine. Although it may seem to help overcome daytime sleepiness, caffeine usually only delays or masks RLS symptoms, and often makes them worse.

  • Some medicines. Some types of over-the-counter and prescription medicines can also make RLS symptoms worse. These include:
          - Antidepressants (most of them)
          - Antinausea medicines
          - Antipsychotic medicines
          - Antihistamines

  • Adopt good sleep habits:
          - Keep your bedroom or sleep area cool, quiet, comfortable, and free of unnecessary light.
          - Use your bedroom for sleeping, not for watching TV or using computers or cell phones.
          - Go to bed every night at the same time and wake up at the same time every morning. Some people with RLS find it helpful to go to bed later in the evening and get up later in the morning. The important thing is to get enough sleep so that you feel rested when you wake up.

  • Follow a program of moderate exercise

    Other activities that also may help relieve symptoms include:


  • Walking or stretching
  • Taking a hot or cold bath
  • Massaging the leg or arm
  • Using heat or ice packs


    Medicines can help relieve some symptoms of RLS. Doctors prescribe medicines to treat RLS in people:


  • With clearly defined symptoms
  • Whose symptoms cannot be controlled by lifestyle and nondrug treatments

    No single medicine is helpful in all persons with RLS. It may take several changes in medicines and dosages to find the best approach. Sometimes, a medicine will work for a while and then stop working.


    Some medicines may not be safe for pregnant women.


    Always talk with your doctor before taking any medicines, even over-the-counter medicines.


    Specific medicines

    Medicines used to treat Parkinson's disease also are used to treat RLS. Even though these medicines help reduce RLS symptoms, RLS is not a form of Parkinson's disease. The medicines help reduce the amount of motion in the legs. They include:


  • Levodopa
          - Is best used to treat mild cases of RLS
          - Is short-acting
          - Works for a while but does not work long term in most people

  • Dopamine agonists (pergolide, pramipexole, and ropinirole)
          - Are used to treat moderate and severe cases of RLS
          - Are used to treat mild cases of RLS if levodopa stops working
          - Are long-acting

    The US Food and Drug Administration recently approved ropinirole to treat moderate to severe RLS.


    Other medicines may be used to treat RLS, including:


  • Strong pain-relieving medicines (narcotics).
          -Used most often when symptoms are severe
          -May be used in people who don't respond to dopamine agonists

  • Sedatives (benzodiazepines).
          - Help with falling asleep
          -May cause daytime sleepiness
          -Are not recommended for people with sleep apnea and for older persons

  • Medicines used to treat epilepsy (anticonvulsants: gabapentin, carbamazepine, and valproate). These types of medicines are:
          - Considered when dopamine agonists fail
          - Most effective in persons with daytime and evening symptoms, as well as sleep-onset symptoms, and in those who describe the unpleasant feelings in the legs as painful.

  • Iron supplements, if iron deficiency appears to be contributing to RLS. Iron supplements should only be used if recommended by a doctor.

    Living with restless legs syndrome

    Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is often a lifelong condition. The symptoms may come and go frequently or disappear completely for long periods of time. They may get worse over time. Lifestyle changes and medicines can help control and relieve the symptoms of RLS. For severe symptoms, ongoing medicines may be needed. Talk with your doctor about lifestyle changes and medicines that might help your symptoms. New treatments are being developed as research continues.


    RLS that occurs during pregnancy usually improves or disappears within a few weeks after delivery.