What it is, its causes and symptoms, and how it can be addressed to improve sleep
Danielle Pacheco, Staff Writer
Medically Reviewed by
Heather Wright, Pathologist
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Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also called Willis Ekbom disease causes uncomfortable feelings in the legs, such as itching, prickling, pulling, or crawling. These sensations create an overwhelming urge to move the legs.
People with RLS may walk, stretch, or shake their legs to achieve relief. Symptoms tend to be worse when inactive, including when relaxing or lying down. As a result, the symptoms of RLS often disrupt sleep.
RLS affects 5 to 10% of adults and 2 to 4% of children in the U.S. and it is found in women more often than men. People of all ages can develop RLS, but the most severe symptoms tend to occur in older adults.
What Are the Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome?
The sensations associated with RLS are distinct from normal sensations experienced by those who don’t have the disorder. This makes them difficult to characterize. According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, the words and phrases most commonly used by RLS patients to describe the feelings are:
The desire to move one’s legs makes falling asleep and staying asleep difficult for many people with RLS. A study found that 88% of individuals with RLS reported at least one sleep-related symptom. RLS symptoms often appear shortly after laying down at night and patients will kick, squirm, or massage their legs to lessen the sensation. Some people with RLS are compelled to get out of bed and pace or stretch.
As a result of the sleep disturbances associated with RLS, patients often experience fatigue and daytime sleepiness. Sleep deficiency is associated with depression, anxiety, heart disease, and obesity. RLS patients are at greater risk for these issues as well. Concerns about sleep are the main reason RLS patients seek medical care for their condition.
Restless Legs Syndrome and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
Most people who have RLS also have a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD involves repetitive flexing or twitching of the limbs while asleep at night. It is different from RLS in that these movements are not accompanied by uncomfortable sensations and because they occur during sleep, patients are often not aware of them. However, PLMD-associated movements can cause a person to wake up and therefore can compound sleep issues in patients who also have RLS.
Although most people with RLS have PLMD, many with PLMD do not have RLS.
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What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
Sometimes, RLS is associated with other medical conditions, such as late-stage kidney disease, iron deficiency, neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease.
RLS can also occur temporarily during pregnancy, with around 20% of women developing RLS during the third trimester. The symptoms of RLS typically decline after delivery.
However, the cause of most RLS cases is unknown. RLS may have a genetic component. Between 40% and 90% of patients with RLS have at least one first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with the condition. Researchers have identified some genetic changes that increase risk for RLS, but it is likely that more have yet to be discovered.
Restless Legs Syndrome Triggers
Sitting or resting are common triggers for RLS symptoms. Additionally, some substances can make symptoms worse. These include:
Medications, including certain drugs used to treat nausea, colds and allergies, and mental health conditions
Incidentally, most of these substances when taken in excess or too close to bedtime can also adversely affect our sleep architecture.
How Is Restless Legs Syndrome Managed?
The goals of treatment for RLS are to stabilize symptoms and improve sleep consistency. There are both non-medicinal approaches and drug treatments available to manage RLS.
Home Care Tips for Restless Legs Syndrome
The following approaches can reduce symptoms in patients with mild or moderate RLS and may be used in combination with medication in RLS patients who have severe symptoms.
Sleep hygiene: Good sleep hygiene means maintaining a bedroom environment and a daily routine that supports high-quality sleep. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine is especially important for RLS patients because these substances can worsen symptoms.
Exercise: Because physical inactivity often triggers RLS symptoms, exercise may be helpful. A research study found that RLS patients showed a 39% reduction in symptom severity after six weeks of engaging in an exercise program compared to an 8% symptom reduction in patients who did not exercise.
Pneumatic pressure therapy: Pneumatic compression devices increase blood flow to the legs by filling with air to squeeze the legs. Researchers found that the device improved RLS symptoms, quality-of-life, and fatigue after one month of daily use compared to a control group.
Massage and hot baths: Using massage and hot baths to stimulate the legs is widely recommended in RLS literature; however, there is limited scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of these methods at this time.
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Wang, J., O'Reilly, B., Venkataraman, R., Mysliwiec, V., & Mysliwiec, A. (2009). Efficacy of oral iron in patients with restless legs syndrome and a low-normal ferritin: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Sleep medicine, 10(9), 973–975.
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Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.