Diseases & Conditions

What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological condition in which you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually due to leg discomfort. It typically happens in the evenings or nights while you're sitting or lying down. In some people, this feeling becomes painful. Moving temporarily eases the unpleasant feeling.

What are the symptoms of the RLS?

Many people with RLS find it difficult to describe the feeling that they get in their legs. It may be like a crawling sensation, an electric feeling, like water running down your leg, itchy, jumpy or twitchy legs, or just uncomfortable. Some people describe a deep painful feeling in their legs. The unpleasant feelings make you have an urge to move. Symptoms usually:

  • Develop when you are resting
  • Worsen in the evening, especially when trying to sleep. Sometimes they cause leg movements during sleep, causing tiredness during the daytime.
  • Are relieved by moving your legs, walking, stretching or massaging your legs.
  • Affect both legs, and sometimes even your arms.

Who gets RLS?

Anyone can have RLS, but it is more common in older adults and women. Restless legs syndrome is also common during pregnancy (approximately 40 percent of pregnant women experience it). Women are nearly twice as likely as men to develop the disorder. If you have a family member with RLS, you are more likely to develop the symptoms before you are 45 years old. More than half of people with RLS have a pattern of it in their family, as the risk is about three to six times greater.

What causes RLS?

The cause of restless legs syndrome varies from person to person. In some cases the cause is unknown, or it may be caused by or made worse by other health issues or medications. This may include:

  • Low iron levels
  • Pregnancy. Especially in later stage, symptoms often go away after delivery
  • As a symptom of some other conditions such as diabetes, severe kidney diseases and Parkinson's disease
  • Some medications can cause RLS or make it worse:
    • Allergy medications
    • Many antidepressants
    • Antihistamines and over-the-counter sleep aids
    • Nearly all centrally active dopamine-receptor antagonists, including anti-nausea medications
    • Too much caffeine, alcohol and smoking

How do I know if I have RLS?

There is no lab test that determines whether or not you have RLS. Your doctor will usually make a diagnosis based on the common and typical symptoms. Your doctor may do soself me tests to rule out a secondary cause in order to check for a lack of iron and rule out kidney disease.

Self tests

  • Do you have difficulty falling asleep because of an urge to move your legs?
  • Do you wake up at night because you feel like your legs are on fire?
  • Do you feel an itching in your legs when you lie down to go to sleep?
  • Do your legs seem to feel better when you walk, stretch or make other movements?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have RLS.

How can RLS be treated?

Treatment of RLS depends on the severity of your symptoms.

Exercise: Regular exercise such as walking or riding an exercise bike may relieve the symptoms of RLS. Exercising too much or at too great of an intensity can actually increase symptoms.

Stress reduction techniques: Stress can aggravate RLS. Relaxation-promoting activities such as yoga, meditation or other techniques can reduce the symptoms. This approach is especially helpful before bedtime.

Quit smoking and drink less caffeine and alcohol: Each of these may worsen the symptoms of RLS. By avoiding these substances, you may be able to help your RLS.

Massage your legs or soak in a hot bath: Both of these can help relax your muscles and alleviate the symptoms of RLS.

Medications: There are a variety of medications available to treat RLS. You may take one medication or a combination of them for your RLS.

Drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease, sleeping pills and iron supplements, especially if iron is low in your body, and sometimes certain anti-seizure medications can also help RLS. The downside of all of these medications is that they might stop working after you have been on them for a while. Talk to your doctor about which treatment is best for you.

Can RLS get worse or better by itself?

For most people where there is not a reversible factor (such as iron deficiency), RLS gradually gets worse with age. Occasionally RLS can go away by itself, but often it will return.

© Copyright 2017 Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, part of Mubadala Healthcare, and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

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