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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder related to sensation and movement. People with restless legs syndrome have an unpleasant feeling or sensation in parts of their bodies when they lie down to sleep. Most people also have a very strong urge to move, and moving sometimes makes them feel better. But all this movement makes it hard or impossible to get enough sleep.
Restless legs syndrome usually affects the legs, but it can cause unpleasant feelings in the arms, torso, or even a phantom limb (the part of a limb that has been amputated).
When you don't get enough sleep, you may start to have problems getting things done during the day because you're so tired. You may also be sleepy or have trouble concentrating. So it's important to see your doctor and get help to manage your symptoms.
Usually there isn't a clear reason for restless legs. The problem often runs in families. Sometimes there is a clear cause, like not getting enough iron. If that's the case, treating the cause may solve the problem.
Women sometimes get restless legs while they are pregnant.
Other problems that are sometimes linked to restless legs syndrome include kidney failure, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, nerve damage, anemia, and Parkinson's disease. But most people who seek treatment do not have any of these other problems.
Restless legs syndrome makes you feel like you must move a part of your body, usually your legs. These feelings are often described as tingling, "pins and needles," prickling, pulling, or crawling.
Moving will usually make you feel better, at least for a short time. This problem usually happens at night when you are trying to relax or go to sleep.
After you fall asleep, your legs or arms may begin to jerk or move. These movements are called periodic limb movements. They can wake you from sleep, which adds to your being overtired. Although periodic limb movement is considered a separate condition, it often happens to people who have restless legs syndrome.
One of the hardest things about having restless legs syndrome is getting to the diagnosis. Often doctors don't ask about sleep or don't ask about the symptoms of restless legs. If you're not sleeping well, or if you think you may have restless legs syndrome, tell your doctor.
Your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms to make sure that the feelings you describe are typical of restless legs syndrome and not caused by some other problem.
You may have blood tests to rule out other problems that could be causing your symptoms. In some cases, the doctor may order tests of your nerves to be sure there is no nerve damage. Your doctor may also order a sleep study called a polysomnography. This test records how often your legs jerk or move while you sleep.
If your symptoms are mild, a few lifestyle changes may be enough to control your symptoms. Some changes that may help:
When symptoms are more severe, medicines may help control the urge to move and help you sleep. There are different types of medicine, and you may have to try a few to find the one that works best.
Learning about restless legs syndrome:
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The main symptom of restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an irresistible urge to move because of uncomfortable and sometimes painful sensations deep within a part of your body. The feelings usually affect the legs, but can also affect the arms, torso, or a phantom limb (the part of a limb that has been amputated). Some people describe the sensations as aching, creeping, crawling, or prickling. Symptoms usually begin about 15 minutes after you lie down to sleep or to relax or when you have not moved for long periods, such as when traveling in a car or airplane. Symptoms that occur frequently can result in significant sleep loss, fatigue, and problems with daily functioning.
After they are asleep, most people with RLS also have involuntary or jerking leg movements called periodic limb movements. These movements can interrupt your sleep, which adds to problems with fatigue. Periodic limb movements may also occur during the day, although most people move around after their legs begin to bother them. As a result, the periodic limb movements that people have when they are awake may not be noticed except under unusual circumstances.
Restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movements also often disturb the sleep of a bed partner. This can cause fatigue for both people and can strain the relationship.
Symptoms may start during infancy or any time during your life. At first, your symptoms may be mild and occur only once in awhile. Typically, symptoms get worse with age. After age 50, many people with this condition have daily symptoms and suffer from significant sleep loss. Severe insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and lack of social activity can become a problem and cause a decline in quality of life.
Restless legs syndrome may start or become worse during pregnancy, especially after week 20.
A doctor diagnoses restless legs syndrome by asking questions about your symptoms. A physical exam may be done to look for other possible problems that could be causing your symptoms.
Restless legs syndrome is diagnosed by your doctor based on the following four criteria:
Other factors that may support a diagnosis include:
A sleep study called a polysomnography may be done to help your doctor diagnose restless legs syndrome or rule out other sleep disorders. This test records the electrical activity of your brain, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rate, breathing, air flow through your nose and mouth, and blood oxygen levels.
Although this test is not essential, it provides details of limb movement symptoms. These details may help evaluate the severity of your symptoms. The severity ranges from people who have restless legs syndrome occasionally, with only mild difficulty falling asleep, to those who have it frequently, with repeated interruptions of sleep. Serious sleep problems can greatly affect your ability to function during the day.
Many cases go undiagnosed because:
Restless legs syndrome does occur in children but it is hard to diagnose for the same reasons. Children often are not able to describe their symptoms. A parent's observations of the child's behavior and sleep may be helpful. Knowing that a parent or other close relative has restless legs syndrome can also help the doctor make a diagnosis of restless legs syndrome in the child.
Polysomnography and related sleep study tests may also be done to help identify problems that can interfere with sleep. You may be evaluated for other conditions with symptoms similar to restless legs syndrome. These conditions include varicose veins, arthritis, or intermittent claudication (a tight, aching, or squeezing pain in the calf, foot, thigh, or buttock that occurs during exercise).
You also may be asked about behaviors, habits, and physical traits that may be related, such as:
You may also have tests to check for other diseases or health conditions—such as diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, pregnancy, kidney problems, or iron deficiency anemia—that can cause your symptoms. Tests will vary depending on what your doctor identifies as likely problems.
Treatment for restless legs syndrome is based on the type of symptoms you have and how bad your symptoms are. Getting regular exercise and enough sleep may relieve mild symptoms. Medicines may be tried when symptoms are severe and interfere with sleep and daily functioning. If your symptoms are being caused by another medical condition (such as iron deficiency anemia), that condition can be treated first.
Changing your daily routine is sometimes enough to control your symptoms. Stretching, walking, exercising regularly, taking a hot or cold bath, using massage, losing weight if you are overweight, and avoiding smoking and caffeine may reduce or control your symptoms.
If your symptoms are caused by another medical condition such as diabetes or iron deficiency anemia, you will be treated for that condition first. For example, if iron deficiency is causing restless legs syndrome, you will be prescribed iron supplements.
For restless legs syndrome that starts during pregnancy, your doctor may recommend conservative treatment, such as regular exercise and stretching, to relieve symptoms. Your condition may be reevaluated if it doesn't go away after you have given birth.
Children who have restless legs syndrome are not usually treated with drugs right away. First regular, moderate exercise and regular sleep routines are tried. If this treatment is not effective, the doctor may prescribe medicine.
If your symptoms do not improve, drugs may be used to control the urge to move and help you sleep, such as:
Also, your doctor may prescribe drugs like zolpidem (for example, Ambien) or eszopiclone (Lunesta) alone or together with dopamine agonists, opioids, or anticonvulsants.
If your doctor recommends medicine, make sure that you discuss expectations and understand the potential benefits and risks of the drug. Let your doctor know about all of the other drugs you are taking. Drugs taken for other conditions sometimes contribute to restless legs syndrome. For example, antidepressants improve restless legs syndrome in some people but make it worse in others.
If you continue to have symptoms even though you are receiving treatment with drugs and are exercising regularly, eating right, and not smoking or using caffeine, your symptoms may need to be reevaluated. Many other conditions can cause the sensations found in restless legs syndrome, including several vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Your doctor may recommend different drugs or a combination of drugs. Follow up with your doctor if your symptoms do not improve.
There are ways to improve your symptoms of restless legs syndrome at home.
See your doctor if your symptoms do not improve, if they become worse, or if they significantly interfere with your sleep and daily functioning.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the leading U.S. federal government agency supporting research on brain and nervous system disorders. It provides the public with educational materials and information about these disorders.
This website was created by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) to provide dependable information related to sleep, sleep disorders, treatments, and services.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:
The National Sleep Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, can provide you with brochures on sleep disorders and a list of accredited sleep disorder clinics.
The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with restless legs syndrome (RLS). General medical information and research updates are available online and through newsletters and special publications. The Web site has numerous links to support groups and resources for more information about the condition.
WE MOVE is an Internet resource for movement disorder information. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to educating people about the latest treatment options for neurologic movement disorders. WE MOVE also has information on support groups and hosts discussions and chat rooms on the website.
Other Works ConsultedAmerican Academy of Sleep Medicine (2005). Restless legs syndrome. In International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Diagnostic Coding Manual, 2nd ed., pp. 178–181. Westchester, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine.Aurora RN, et al. (2012). The treatment of restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder in adults—An update for 2012: Practice parameters with an evidence-based systematic review and meta-analyses. Sleep, 35(8): 1039–1062. Also available online: http://www.aasmnet.org/practiceparameters.aspx?cid=119.Buysse DJ, et al. (2008). Sleep disorders. In RE Hales et al., eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 921–969. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.Esteves AM, et al. (2009). Effect of acute and chronic physical exercise on patients with periodic leg movements. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(1): 237–242.Littner MR, et al. (2004). Practice parameters for the dopaminergic treatment of restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder. Sleep, 27(3): 557–559.Pack AM (2010). Neurologic disease during pregnancy. In LP Rowland, TA Pedley, eds., Merritt's Neurology, 12th ed., pp. 1043–1050. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.Weintraub D, et al. (2010). Impulse control disorders in Parkinson disease. Archives of Neurology, 67(5): 589–595.
Last Revised: March 10, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Colin Chalk, MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology
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