Restless Legs Syndrome

A condition characterized by a nearly irresistible urge to move the legs, typically in the evenings

What is restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by throbbing, pulling, creeping, or other unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable, and sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them. Symptoms occur primarily at night when a person is relaxing or at rest and can increase in severity during the night. Moving the legs relieves the discomfort. Often called paresthesias (abnormal sensations) or dysesthesias (unpleasant abnormal sensations), the sensations range in severity from uncomfortable to irritating to painful.

The most distinctive or unusual aspect of the condition is that lying down and trying to relax activates the symptoms. Most people with RLS have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Left untreated, the condition causes exhaustion and daytime fatigue. Many people with RLS report that their job, personal relations, and activities of daily living are strongly affected as a result of their sleep deprivation. They are often unable to concentrate, have impaired memory, or fail to accomplish daily tasks. It also can make traveling difficult and can cause depression.

As many as 10 percent of the U.S. population may have RLS. Several studies have shown that moderate to severe RLS affects approximately 2-3 percent of adults (more than 5 million individuals). An additional 5 percent appears to be affected by a milder form. Childhood RLS is estimated to affect almost 1 million school-age children, with one-third having moderate to severe symptoms. Some people with RLS will not seek medical attention, believing that they will not be taken seriously, that their symptoms are too mild, or that their condition is not treatable. Some physicians wrongly attribute the symptoms to nervousness, insomnia, stress, arthritis, muscle cramps, or aging.

RLS occurs in both men and women, although the incidence is about twice as high in women. It may begin at any age. Many individuals who are severely affected are middle-aged or older, and the symptoms typically become more frequent and last longer with age.

RLS is classified as a movement disorder, as individuals are forced to move their legs in order to gain relief from symptoms.

More than 80 percent of people with RLS also experience a more common condition known as periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS). PLMS is characterized by involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements during sleep that typically occur every 15 to 40 seconds, sometimes throughout the night. The symptoms cause repeated awakening and severely disrupted sleep. Although many individuals with RLS also develop PLMS, most people with PLMS do not experience RLS. People who have PLMS and do not have RLS or another cause for the PLMS may be diagnosed with periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD may be a variant of RLS and thus respond to similar treatments.

Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

People with restless legs syndrome have uncomfortable sensations in their legs (and sometimes arms or other parts of the body) and an irresistible urge to move their legs to relieve the sensations. The condition causes an uncomfortable, “itchy,” “pins and needles,” or “creepy crawly” feeling in the legs. The sensations are usually worse at rest, especially when lying or sitting.

The severity of RLS symptoms ranges from mild to intolerable. Symptoms can come and go and severity can also vary. The symptoms are generally worse in the evening and at night. For some people, symptoms may cause severe nightly sleep disruption that can significantly impair their quality of life.

Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome

In most cases, doctors do not know the cause of restless legs syndrome; however, they suspect that genes play a role. Nearly half of people with RLS also have a family member with the condition.

Other factors associated with the development or worsening of restless legs syndrome include:

  • Chronic diseases. Certain chronic diseases and medical conditions, including iron deficiency, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy often include symptoms of RLS. Treating these conditions often gives some relief from RLS symptoms.
  • Medications. Some types of medications, including antinausea drugs, antipsychotic drugs, some antidepressants, and cold and allergy medications containing sedating antihistamines, may worsen symptoms.
  • Pregnancy. Some women experience RLS during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester. Symptoms usually go away within a month after delivery.
    Other factors, including alcohol use and sleep deprivation, may trigger symptoms or make them worse. Improving sleep or eliminating alcohol use in these cases may relieve symptoms.