Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

What is RLS?

Restless legs syndrome is a problem (disorder) that affects the nervous system and muscles.. It causes unpleasant sensations in the legs. The sensations are described as:

  • Creeping
  • Crawling
  • Tingling
  • Pulling

You usually have these sensations in the calf, but they may be felt anywhere from the thigh to the ankle. One or both of your legs may be affected. Some people may have the sensations in the arms. With RLS, you have an irresistible urge to move the affected limb when the sensations occur. Moving often briefly relieves the limb discomfort.

Sleep problems are common with RLS because of the difficulty it causes in getting to sleep. Severe daytime fatigue can also be a big problem.

What causes RLS?

The cause of RLS is still unknown. Some cases are believed to be inherited. Some cases have been linked with nerve damage in the legs from diabetes, kidney problems, iron deficiency, certain medicines, pregnancy, sleep disorders, and alcoholism.

It's estimated that as many as 1 in 10 people in the U.S. may have RLS in varying degrees of severity.

What are the symptoms of RLS?

Sensations occur when you lie down or sit for a prolonged time. This causes:

  • The need to move the legs for temporary relief of symptoms by:
    • Stretching or bending
    • Rubbing the legs
    • Tossing or turning in bed
    • Getting up and pacing
  • Worsening symptoms when lying down, especially when trying to fall asleep at night, or during other forms of inactivity, including just sitting
  • A tendency to feel the most discomfort late in the day and at night

How is RLS diagnosed?

Your  healthcare provider can diagnose RLS based on your signs and symptoms, a complete medical history, and a physical exam. In addition, tests, such as lab tests or a sleep study, may be done. Currently, there is not a definitive test to diagnose restless legs syndrome.

How is RLS treated?

Your healthcare provider will consider your age, overall health and other factors when advising treatment for you.

Treatment options for restless legs syndrome may include:

  • Trying good sleep habits
  • Stopping activities that worsen symptoms
  • Giving up caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. These may make symptoms worse.
  • Regular, moderate exercise
  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet
  • Treating underlying chronic conditions

Medicines, including:

  • Dopaminergic medicines. These are medicines that increase dopamine and are largely used to treat Parkinson disease.
  • Benzodiazepines such as clonazepam and diazepam
  • Opioids such as codeine, propoxyphene, and oxycodone
  • Anticonvulsants such as gabapentin and pregabalin
  • Iron therapy. Some people respond to iron therapy.

Talk with your  healthcare provider for more information on how restless legs syndrome is treated.

Key points about restless legs syndrome

  • Restless legs syndrome is a disorder that causes unpleasant sensations in the legs. The cause of RLS is still unknown.
  • With RLS, you have an irresistible urge to move the affected limb when the sensations occur.
  • Your  healthcare provider can diagnose RLS based on your symptoms, a health history, and a physical exam, but there is no definitive test to diagnose RLS.
  • Medicine and lifestyle changes can help ease RSL symptoms.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Medical Reviewer: Joseph Campellone MD
Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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