Restless Legs Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Information on restless legs syndrome a condition in which your legs feel extremely uncomfortable when sitting or lying down.

Definition: Defining the Meaning of Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) (also known as Willis-Ekbom disease (WED) or Wittmaack-Ekbom syndrome), is a neurological disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move one's body to stop uncomfortable or odd sensations. It most commonly affects the legs, but can affect the arms, torso, head, and even phantom limbs. Moving the affected body part modulates the sensations, providing temporary relief. RLS sensations range from pain or an aching in the muscles, to "an itch you can't scratch", an unpleasant "tickle that won't stop", or even a "crawling" feeling. The sensations typically begin or intensify during quiet wakefulness, such as when relaxing, reading, studying, or trying to sleep.

Main Document

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder of the part of the nervous system that affects movements of the legs. Because it usually interferes with sleep, it also is considered a neurological sleep disorder. RLS affects about 8-10% of the US population. Men and women are affected equally. It may begin at any age, even in infants and young children. Most people who are affected severely are middle-aged or older.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which your legs feel extremely uncomfortable while you're sitting or lying down. It makes you feel like getting up and moving around. When you do so, the unpleasant feeling of restless leg syndrome temporarily goes away.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS, Wittmaack-Ekbom's syndrome, or sometimes, but inaccurately, referred to as Nocturnal myoclonus) is a condition that is characterized by an irresistible urge to move one's body to stop uncomfortable or odd sensations. It most commonly affects the legs, but can also affect the arms or torso. Moving the affected body part modulates the sensations, providing temporary relief. RLS causes a sensation in the legs or arms that can most closely be compared to a burning, itching, or tickling sensation in the muscles.

Some researchers estimate that RLS affects as many as 12 million Americans.

However, others estimate a much higher occurrence because RLS is thought to be under-diagnosed and, in some cases, misdiagnosed. A family history of the condition is seen in approximately 50 percent of such cases, suggesting a genetic form of the disorder.

Some pregnant women experience RLS, especially in their last trimester. For most of these women, symptoms usually disappear within 4 weeks after delivery.

Restless legs syndrome can cause difficulty in falling or staying asleep which can be one of the complaints of the syndrome. A number of people who have RLS also have periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS). These are jerks that occur every 20 to 30 seconds on and off throughout the night.

The most distinctive or unusual aspect of the condition is that lying down and trying to relax activates the symptoms. As a result, most people with RLS have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Left untreated, the condition causes exhaustion and daytime fatigue.

Restless legs syndrome means to have a strong urge to move your legs which you may not be able to resist. The need to move is often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations. Some words used to describe these sensations include: creeping, itching, pulling, creepy crawly, tugging, or gnawing.

RLS symptoms get better when you move your legs. The relief can be complete or only partial but generally starts very soon after starting an activity. Relief persists as long as the motor activity continues.

For those with mild to moderate symptoms, prevention is key, and many physicians suggest certain lifestyle changes and activities to reduce or eliminate symptoms.

Decreased use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco may provide some relief.

Physicians may suggest that certain individuals take supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate, and magnesium.

Studies also have shown that maintaining a regular sleep pattern can reduce symptoms.


RLS is generally a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Nevertheless, current therapies can control the disorder, minimizing symptoms and increasing periods of restful sleep. Symptoms may gradually worsen with age, although the decline may be somewhat faster for individuals who also suffer from an associated medical condition. In addition, some individuals have remissions, periods in which symptoms decrease or disappear for days, weeks, or months, although symptoms usually eventually reappear. A diagnosis of RLS does not indicate the onset of another neurological disease, such as Parkinson's disease.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) Awareness

International Restless Legs Syndrome RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease WED, Awareness Day (September 23) falls on the birth-date of RLS discoverer Karl Ekbom, a Swedish neurologist who first described the syndrome in the 1940s. The awareness day is meant to recognize RLS, an affliction that causes irresistible urges to move the legs and often is accompanied by creepy-crawly sensations in the legs. The sensations are relieved only by movement and become worse as the sun goes down, causing night after night of sleeplessness for the millions of people with RLS and their partners. Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) Awareness Week is sponsored by the American Sleep Association. From February 1 - 7th.

Quick Facts: RLS Prevention & Treatment

Other than preventing the underlying causes, generally no method of preventing RLS has been established or studied. If RLS is due to specific treatable causes (specific medications or treatable conditions), then treatment of those causes may also remove or reduce RLS. Otherwise medical responses focus on treating the condition, either symptomatically or by targeting lifestyle changes and bodily processes capable of modifying its expression or severity.

Treatment of restless legs syndrome involves identifying the cause of symptoms when possible. The treatment process is designed to reduce symptoms, including decreasing the number of nights with RLS symptoms, the severity of RLS symptoms and nighttime awakenings. Improving the quality of life is another goal in treatment.

Statistics: Restless Legs Syndrome

  • Restless legs syndrome may affect up to 10% of the U.S. population.
  • Nearly half of people with RLS also have a family member with the condition.
  • Neurologic conditions linked to RLS include Parkinson disease, spinal cerebellar atrophy, spinal stenosis, lumbosacral radiculopathy and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 2.
  • Restless legs syndrome affects both sexes but is more common in women and may begin at any age, even in young children. Most people who are affected severely are middle-aged or older.
  • RLS is even more common in individuals with iron deficiency, pregnancy and end-stage renal disease. The National Sleep Foundation's 1998 Sleep in America poll showed that up to 25 percent of pregnant women developed RLS during the third trimester.
  • Approximately 80 to 90% of people with RLS also have periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), which causes slow "jerks" or flexions of the affected body part. These occur during sleep (PLMS - periodic limb movement while sleeping) or while awake (PLMW - periodic limb movement while waking).

Latest Restless Legs Syndrome Publications

Research showing that RLS is a serious condition with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

FDA approved drug Horizant provides significant help in treating restless legs syndrome symptoms.

A drug prescribed for Parkinsons disease may also treat restless leg syndrome without the adverse side effects of current therapies.

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that adults with fibromyalgia had a much higher prevalence and risk of restless legs syndrome.

Most family members have early-onset but mild to moderate restless legs syndrome symptoms.

Improvement in symptoms based on the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group Rating Scale.

Restless legs syndrome affects between 5 and 11 percent of the population in Europe and in North America.

Whenever a person sits down or lays down at night their legs start to feel as if pins and needles are sticking them or suffer a creepy crawling feeling.

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