Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes a powerful urge to move your legs.

Your legs may become uncomfortable when you are lying down or sitting. Some people describe it as a creeping, crawling, tingling, or burning sensation. Moving makes your legs feel better, but not for long. RLS can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

In most cases, there is no known cause for RLS. In other cases, RLS is caused by a disease or condition, such as anemia or pregnancy. Some medicines can also cause temporary RLS. Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol may make symptoms worse.

Lifestyle changes, such as regular sleep habits, relaxation techniques, and moderate exercise during the day can help. If those don't work, medicines may reduce the symptoms of RLS.

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, usually during sleep. PLMD and RLS can also affect the arms. 

There is no way to prevent RLS. 

No one knows exactly what causes RLS. It may be due to a problem with the way brain cells use dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that helps with muscle movement.

RLS may be linked to some other conditions.

It may occur more often in people with:
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Iron deficiency
  • Parkinson disease
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Pregnancy
  • Multiple sclerosis
RLS may also occur in people who: 
  • Use certain medicines such as calcium channel blockers, lithium, or neuroleptics
  • Are stopping sedative use
  • Use caffeine 

RLS occurs most often in middle-aged and older adults. 

RLS is commonly passed down in families. This may be a factor when symptoms start at a younger age.

RLS leads to unpleasant feelings in your lower legs. These feelings cause an unstoppable urge to move your legs.

You may feel:
  • Creeping and crawling
  • Bubbling, pulling, or tugging
  • Burning or searing
  • Aching, throbbing, or pain
  • Itching or gnawing 
These sensations:
  • Are worse at night when you lie down
  • Sometimes occur during the day
  • Start or get worse when you lie down or sit for long periods of time
  • May last for 1 hour or longer
  • Sometimes also occur in the upper legs, feet, or arms
  • Are relieved when you move or stretch as long as you keep moving 

Symptoms can make it difficult to sit during air or car travel, or through classes or meetings.

Stress or emotional upset can make symptoms worse.

Most people with RLS have rhythmic leg movements when they sleep. This condition is called periodic limb movement disorder. 

All of these symptoms make it hard to sleep.

Lack of sleep can lead to:
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty thinking clearly

There is no specific test for RLS. Your health care provider will take your medical history and do a physical exam. You may have blood tests and other exams to rule out conditions that can cause similar symptoms. 

Usually, your provider will determine whether you have RLS based on your symptoms.

RLS can't be cured. However, treatment can help relieve symptoms.

Certain lifestyle changes may help you cope with the condition and ease symptoms.
  • Get enough sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Make sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable.
  • Try using hot or cold packs on your legs.
  • Help your muscles relax with gentle stretches, massage, and warm baths.
  • Take time out of your day to just relax. Try yoga, meditation, or other ways to ease tension.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. They may make symptoms worse.

Your provider may prescribe medicines to treat RLS.

Some medicines help control symptoms. Other medicines can help you sleep. 

Medicines to help you sleep may cause daytime sleepiness.

Treating conditions with similar symptoms such as peripheral neuropathy or iron deficiencycan also help relieve symptoms.

RLS is not dangerous. However, it can be uncomfortable, make it hard to sleep, and affect your quality of life.