Uncomfortable sensations in your legs can interrupt your sleep — making you drag through your day. These therapies calm the restlessness and improve sleep.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that causes a very strong urge to move the legs. The urge to move usually is caused by an uncomfortable feeling in the legs. It typically happens in the evening or at night when sitting or lying down. Moving eases the discomfort for a short time.
Restless legs syndrome can begin at any age and tends to get worse with age. It can disrupt sleep, which interferes with daily activities. RLS also is known as Willis-Ekbom disease.
Simple self-care steps and lifestyle changes may help relieve symptoms. Medicines also help many people with RLS.
The chief symptom of restless legs syndrome is an urge to move the legs. It's common to experience:
People typically describe RLS symptoms as compelling, unpleasant feelings in the legs or feet. They usually happen on both sides of the body. Less commonly, the sensations affect the arms.
The sensations are felt within the leg rather than on the skin. They're described as:
Sometimes the feelings of RLS are hard to explain. People with RLS usually don't describe the condition as a muscle cramp or numbness. They do, however, consistently describe the desire to move the legs.
It's common for symptoms to get better and worse. Sometimes symptoms disappear for periods of time, then come back.
Talk with your healthcare professional if you have symptoms of restless legs syndrome. RLS can interfere with your sleep, cause daytime drowsiness and affect your quality of life.
Often, there's no known cause for restless legs syndrome. Researchers suspect the condition may be caused by an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine sends messages to control muscle movement.
Sometimes RLS runs in families, especially if the condition starts before age 40. Researchers have identified sites on the chromosomes where genes for RLS may be present.
Pregnancy or hormonal changes may worsen RLS symptoms. Some people get RLS for the first time during pregnancy, especially during the last trimester. However, symptoms usually disappear after delivery.
Restless legs syndrome can develop at any age, even during childhood. The condition is more common with increasing age. It's also more common in women than in men.
RLS usually isn't related to a serious underlying medical condition. However, it sometimes occurs with other conditions, such as:
Restless legs syndrome symptoms can range from being mild to having a serious impact on people's lives. Many people with RLS find it hard to fall or stay asleep.
Serious symptoms of RLS can affect quality of life and result in depression. Not being able to sleep may lead to excessive daytime drowsiness, but RLS may interfere with napping.
To diagnose restless legs syndrome, your healthcare professional takes your medical history and asks about your symptoms. A diagnosis of RLS is based on the following criteria, established by the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group:
Your healthcare professional may conduct a physical and a neurological exam. Blood tests, particularly for iron deficiency, may be ordered to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.
You may be referred to a sleep specialist. This may involve an overnight stay and a study at a sleep clinic if another sleep condition such as sleep apnea is suspected. However, a diagnosis of RLS usually doesn't require a sleep study.
Symptoms of restless legs syndrome sometimes go away after treating an underlying condition, such as iron deficiency. Correcting an iron deficiency may involve taking an iron supplement by mouth. Or you may be given an iron supplement through a vein in your arm. Take iron supplements only with medical supervision and after having your blood-iron level checked.
If you have RLS without an associated condition, treatment focuses on lifestyle changes. If those aren't effective, your healthcare professional may prescribe medicines.
Several prescription medicines are available to reduce the restlessness in the legs. Many of the medicines were developed to treat other diseases, but they may help with RLS. Medicines include:
Medicines that increase dopamine in the brain. These medicines affect levels of the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain. Rotigotine (Neupro), pramipexole (Mirapex ER) and ropinirole are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of moderate to severe RLS.
Short-term side effects of these medicines are usually mild and include nausea, lightheadedness and fatigue. However, they also can cause issues with impulse control, such as compulsive gambling. They also can cause daytime sleepiness.
Sometimes dopamine medicines that have worked for a while to relieve RLS stop working. Or you may notice your symptoms return earlier in the day or involve your arms. This is called augmentation. If this happens, your healthcare professional may substitute another medicine.
People who have occasional RLS symptoms may be prescribed carbidopa-levodopa (Duopa, Rytary, others) to take as needed. But healthcare professionals don't recommend taking this medicine daily or near daily. Daily use of this medicine can cause augmentation.
It may take several trials to find the right medicine or combination of medicines that work best for you.
Most medicines prescribed to treat RLS aren't recommended during pregnancy. Instead, self-care techniques may be recommended to relieve symptoms. But if symptoms are bothersome during your last trimester, your healthcare professional may approve the use of certain medicines.
And some medicines may worsen symptoms of RLS. These include some antidepressants, some antipsychotic medicines, some anti-nausea medicines, and some cold and allergy medicines. Your healthcare professional may recommend that you don't take these medicines, if possible. However, if you need to take them, talk about treatments to help manage RLS.
Making simple lifestyle changes can help alleviate symptoms of restless legs syndrome:
Restless legs syndrome is most often a lifelong condition. It may help you to develop coping strategies that work for you, such as:
If you have symptoms of restless legs syndrome, make an appointment with your healthcare professional. You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in conditions affecting the nervous system, known as a neurologist, or a sleep specialist.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Some basic questions to ask about RLS include:
Your healthcare professional is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
To ease your symptoms, try: