What is restless leg syndrome (RLS)?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) experience uncomfortable feelings in their legs and sometimes feet, thighs, arms, and hands that make it difficult to sit or lie down without moving. RLS can make it difficult to fall asleep. When you do fall asleep, about 80 percent of people with RLS will experience jerking in the limbs known as periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS) that wakes them.

Dr. Christopher E. Morgan, MD
Sleep Medicine Specialist

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition that causes an urge to move the legs. RLS is worse in the evening and when sitting. It is seen in 10 to 15 percent of the population. Low brain iron may be a cause. Treatments may include increasing iron, medications, leg massages and compression stockings. Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine may be helpful.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

About 12 million Americans have uncontrollable movements in their arms and legs, a condition called restless leg syndrome. Watch as Dr. Oz explores what causes this condition in a video about the syndrome.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which there is an uncontrollable desire to move the lower legs to alleviate sensations of tingling or burning. The symptoms only occur at rest and many people have difficulty sleeping. Hot baths, massage, stretching, and hot/cold packs have also been recommended with success in some cases. If none of these interventions are successful, a doctor may prescribe medications to help reduce symptoms.

This answer provided for NATA by the Eastern University Athletic Training Education Program.

Restless leg syndrome is a neurologic condition that causes patients to experience uncomfortable sensations in the legs. Patients have an uncontrollable urge to move their legs in order to relieve these symptoms. As these symptoms usually occur in the evening, they can be disruptive to sleep.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs or arms, often described as creeping, crawling, tingling, pulling or painful burning. These symptoms occur when lying down or sitting for prolonged periods. RLS symptoms tend to follow a set daily cycle, with worse symptoms at night.

The sensations usually occur in one or both legs but can also occur in the arms, genital region, face and torso. RLS produces an irresistible urge to move your legs when the sensations occur, making sleep almost impossible. If you have RLS, you probably sleep best toward the end of the night or during the morning hours. Symptoms may improve, then worsen and improve again over the years.

Researchers found that 15% of adults reported symptoms of RLS a few nights a week, and 86% of them said their condition kept them from sleeping. Symptoms can begin at any time but are usually more common and more severe among older people. Children with RLS are sometimes thought to have "growing pains" or may be labeled hyperactive because they have trouble sitting still in school.

Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, MD

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder where the person has an urge to move the legs. The urge to move the legs is usually worse when the person is at rest. It gets better when the person moves, and it gets worse during inactivity. Getting up and moving usually gets rid of it. The person usually experiences the symptoms during the evening time.

There is no cure for RLS, but there is treatment using a class of medications called dopamine agonists, and another class of medication called alpha 2-delta ligands.  People with this condition should see their primary care physician because the treatments are quite effective.

Dr. Michael Breus, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder that causes tingling, twitching, and crawling sensation in the legs. These sensations usually occur around the time of sleep: in the evening or when a person is lying down for extended periods of time. These unpleasant sensations make it very difficult to lay still -- people with RLS feel a powerful urge to move in order to alleviate those creepy, crawly feelings. RLS can be extremely disruptive to sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep.

Science has made real progress in recent years in its basic understanding of restless leg syndrome. It wasn’t long ago that there was debate about whether RLS was even a “real” disorder. Restless leg syndrome is now recognized as both a sleep disorder and a neurological disorder. Despite this progress, RLS still remains something of a mystery condition. We don’t know what causes RLS, though studies have shown there may be a strong genetic component. Restless leg syndrome has been associated with a number of other health conditions -- including cardiovascular diseases and depression.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) has a new name: Willis-Ekbom Disease. RLS was re-named Willis-Ekbom Disease after the English doctor Thomas Willis (1621–1675), who first noticed RLS symptoms, and Dr. Karl Axel Ekbom (1907-1977), a Swedish neurologist who made the first detailed clinical description of RLS. The International RLS Study Group decided to change the name because:

  • legs are supposed to move, not stay at rest;
  • sometimes the arms and torso are involved; and
  • "syndrome" describes a collection of symptoms, but RLS is a specific neurologic disease.

Not that long ago (2005), the FDA approved the first specific RLS medication: ropinirole (Requip is the brand name). Since then, RLS treatment options have come a long way. Sleeping aids, anticonvulsants, and other meds that increase levels of the brain chemical dopamine provide relief. It turns out that low levels of iron in the brain may trigger dopamine problems, and that’s what sets off RLS.

Make sure your iron level is adequate, but don’t overdose. Too much causes heart and liver problems. A minute or two of intense cardio exercise can also help relieve symptoms.

Restless Leg Syndrome is a treatable problem that affects 1 in 5 women with insomnia, occurs twice as often in women and increases with age. RLS is also associated with an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease. The most important risk factors are family history and iron deficiency.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable urge to move when at rest in an effort to relieve these sensations. RLS sensations are often described by people as burning, creeping, tugging, or like insects crawling inside the legs.

The most distinctive or unusual aspect of the disorder is that lying down and trying to relax activates its symptoms. As a result, most people with RLS have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Left untreated, the disorder causes exhaustion and daytime fatigue. Many people with RLS report that their job, personal relations, and activities of daily living are strongly affected as a result of their exhaustion. They are often unable to concentrate, have impaired memory, or fail to accomplish daily tasks.

RLS occurs in both genders, although the incidence may be slightly higher in women. Although the disorder may begin at any age, even as early as infancy, most patients who are severely affected are middle aged or older. In addition, the severity of the disorder appears to increase with age. Older patients experience symptoms more frequently and for longer periods of time.

More than 80 percent of people with RLS also experience a more common condition known as periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD is characterized by involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements during sleep that typically occur every 10-60 seconds, sometimes throughout the night. The symptoms of PLMD cause repeated awakening and severely disrupted sleep. Unlike RLS, movements caused by PLMD are involuntary, which means that people have no control over these. Although many patients with RLS also develop PLMD, most people with PLMD do not experience RLS. Like RLS, the cause of PLMD is unknown.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is marked by sensations in the legs that range from mildly uncomfortable to extremely irritating and painful and are accompanied by an almost irresistible urge to move them to get some relief. Because these uncomfortable sensations generally start or become worse at rest, at night, and while lying down, they often lead to chronic sleep problems, stress, and discomfort.

Research suggests that RLS may be a common and largely undertreated condition that affects slightly more women than men. Although anyone can develop RLS, about half the people with the condition say other family members have it, too. RLS can occur as a consequence of certain medical conditions, and new research shows it can increase the risk of heart disease.

Pregnancy, certain medical conditions, and several drugs, including cold and allergy medications and antinausea drugs, may increase a person's likelihood of suffering from RLS.

Stress, anxiety, and other psychological problems may make symptoms worse, but RLS is not a psychological condition.

RLS shouldn't be confused with periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), a condition that causes leg muscles to involuntarily and intermittently jerk or twitch every 10 to 60 seconds, sometimes throughout the night. Although 80% of those with RLS also have PLMD, most people with PLMD do not have RLS.

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Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine Specialist

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a common problem that interferes with sleep. RLS is when your legs keep jumping or moving throughout the night. Because of this restlessness, even though you may be unconscious for eight hours a night, you feel like you have run a marathon. This results in very poor quality sleep. Many nutritional deficiencies, especially iron deficiency, can trigger RLS. Our normal ranges for blood tests miss very clinically significant nutritional or hormonal deficiencies. This has been documented in a number of studies, including my own research. Natural remedies can also help many people with RLS and insomnia in general.

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Restless legs syndrome is a neurological sleep disorder that causes an overwhelming urge to move the legs. Restless legs syndrome makes it difficult to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. The symptoms are usually worse at night. The sensation is difficult for some people to describe. You may lie down and begin to feel burning or itching inside your legs. If you move your legs or get up and walk around, these symptoms may go away. The discomfort may return when you try again to go to sleep.

Some people with restless legs syndrome have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. Long car rides or airplane travel may be difficult.

Many people wait years to seek treatment because they do not view restless legs as a serious concern. If left untreated, you may notice that your symptoms become more frequent and severe.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Administration Specialist

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by uncomfortable sensations in the legs, accompanied by an irresistible urge to move about in an effort to relieve these feelings. Symptoms include crawly, tingling skin, excessive twitching, and involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements during sleep. These abnormal muscle spasms, which can occur as often as every twenty to sixty seconds, can interfere with normal sleep. The incidence of RLS increases with age, and it affects more women than men. RLS is associated with chronic illnesses, such as kidney failure, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, peripheral neuropathy, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants may aggravate or trigger symptoms, as can some drugs used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions, nausea, colds, allergies, and depression. Treatments include reducing or eliminating any stimulants in your diet. Since RLS may be caused or exacerbated by iron or vitamin deficiencies, iron, folate, and magnesium supplements may help.

Other treatments include a class of drugs known as dopamine agonists (used primarily to treat the uncontrollable movements of Parkinson's). These drugs, which include ropinirole (sold under the brand name Requip), and pramipexole (Mirapex), have been shown to be effective. Negative effects include headache, nausea, and sudden drop in blood pressure. A 2005 study showed that one in five people taking the above-named brands may experience attacks of sudden sleepiness even while driving a car.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.