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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).
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
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.
get restless legs while they are pregnant.
Other problems that are sometimes linked to
restless legs syndrome include kidney failure,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
depression, and lack of social activity can become a
problem and cause a decline in quality of life.
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
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.
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
intermittent claudication (a tight, aching, or
squeezing pain in the calf, foot, thigh, or buttock that occurs during
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
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.
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
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
another medical condition such as
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
Also, your doctor may prescribe drugs
like zolpidem (for example, Ambien) or eszopiclone (Lunesta) alone or
together with dopamine agonists, opioids, or anticonvulsants.
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
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
Your doctor may recommend different drugs or
a combination of drugs. Follow up with your doctor if your symptoms do not
There are ways to improve your symptoms
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
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
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
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.
March 10, 2011
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Colin Chalk, MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology
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