What Is Restless Leg Syndrome?
An overwhelming need to continually move one’s legs is known as restless
leg syndrome (RLS). RLS is not life-threatening and doesn’t necessarily
indicate a serious medical condition.
People with RLS complain of extremely uncomfortable sensations in
their legs (thighs, calves, and feet) and occasionally in their arms. These
sensations, which are sometimes difficult to describe, could include:
Movement usually relieves the discomfort.
Symptoms are more acute during the night and can interrupt sleep.
In the long term, this can lead to fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety.
As many as 10 percent of people in the United States may have
RLS, according to the National
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Doctors classify this neurological
condition as a movement disorder.
What Are the Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome?
Most of the time, the cause of RLS is unknown. Anyone can develop
RLS, but your risk increases with age. Other factors that make RLS more likely
- having family members who developed RLS before
the age of 40
- having a chronic condition, such as diabetes,
kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, or peripheral neuropathy, thyroid disease,
or venous disease
- sleep deprivation
- use of alcohol or caffeine
- certain medications, including lithium and
neuroleptics (medications used to treat mental illnesses)
- sedative withdrawal
- iron deficiency (anemia)
RLS doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of any other
serious medical condition. Seek medical attention if your RLS becomes chronic
or if you’re suffering from insomnia, sleep deprivation, or anxiety.
What Are the Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome?
Symptoms of RLS include:
- uncomfortable sensations in your legs
- irresistible urge to move one or both legs
- feelings that increase at night, when lying down,
or sitting for long periods of time
- nighttime leg twitching
- sleep interruption
How Is Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosed?
There’s no specific diagnostic test for RLS. A doctor can
diagnosis RLS based on patient symptoms, medical history, and a physical
examination. Diagnostic criteria includes:
- a strong need to move the leg or legs
- symptoms triggered by sleep or rest
- symptoms that improve with movement
- symptoms that increase during the night and
subside in the morning
Your doctor may order a sleep test before making a diagnosis.
This test usually involves sleeping overnight at a sleep clinic. A sleep
specialist will monitor you for signs of RLS or other sleep conditions (like
Your doctor may also order additional testing, including blood
and nerve tests, to rule out other conditions. Blood tests can identify:
- vitamin deficiencies (including iron deficiency
- kidney disease
- thyroid disease
Nerve testing, a type of neurological
examination, can help your doctor determine whether peripheral
neuropathy (nerve injury) is the problem. Common tests include electromyography
(EMG) and nerve conduction velocity (NCV).
The doctor will insert a very thin needle into the problem
muscle. They’ll ask you to contract the muscle. The needle acts as an
electrode. It enables your doctor to monitor the muscle’s electrical activity
and how well it responds to nerve stimulation.
Nerve Conduction Velocity
The doctor will place electrodes on the skin over the problem
area. A mild electrical current will stimulate the nerves. This test measures
the speed at which the nerves are stimulated. Slower speeds can be an
indication of nerve injury.
What Are the Treatments for Restless Leg Syndrome?
Treatment for RLS involves first treating any underlying medical
conditions. Then your doctor may suggest home-care techniques to relieve
symptoms. Techniques may include:
- warm baths
- leg-stretching exercises
- a heating pad or ice pack
- maintaining a steady sleeping and waking
- cutting down on the use of caffeine, alcohol,
and tobacco products
Some doctors prescribe medications designed to treat other
disorders if RLS symptoms are severe. Be sure to discuss the potential benefits
and side effects with your doctor. You should only take dopaminergic agents,
which doctors occasionally prescribe, for the short term. Long-term use of this
medication, which is a common treatment for Parkinson’s disease, may make RLS
Other examples of these medications include:
- pain relievers
- medications to treat insomnia
- muscle relaxants
- medications for the treatment of epilepsy
- narcotics (can be addictive)
What Is the Long-Term Outlook?
Treatment for underlying medical conditions, lifestyle changes,
and home remedies may improve symptoms of RLS. RLS may come and go in some
individuals. In particular, RLS brought on by pregnancy generally goes away on
Symptoms sometimes increase with age, and RLS can become chronic.
The disorder itself isn’t dangerous and it isn’t necessarily a sign of another
medical condition. However, chronic RLS can result in insomnia, anxiety, and
Seek medical care if your RLS becomes chronic. Support groups can
also help you cope with the emotional toll of chronic RLS.