Restless Leg Syndrome

What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless Legs Syndrome (also called RLS) is a sleep disorder of the nervous system.  It is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move the legs.  There is no specific cause for it but doctors suspect that genes play a large role.  It may also be related to chronic diseases like Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, iron deficiency, or kidney failure. Restless legs syndrome can also be a side effect of some medications and some women are known to experience it during pregnancy.

What are the Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome is characterized by a tingling or itchy feeling it the legs.  Some describe is as a crawling sensation.  It can occur in the arms as well.  People feel the intense need to move their limbs to rid themselves of these strange feelings.  Some people rub their feet or legs together while others pace the floor to get relief.  Symptoms tend to occur while laying down or sitting still.  Activity usually helps the feelings go away.

Restless Leg Syndrome Causes

In the vast majority of cases of restless leg syndrome (RLS), the cause is unknown. For many people, the condition runs in families, particularly when the condition begins before the age of 40. Certain genes have been linked with RLS, but not everyone with the condition has a family history of it or will necessary pass it on to their children.

There is some evidence to suggest that RLS could be caused by low levels of iron in the brain. However, low iron levels aren’t necessarily present in everyone with RLS.

RLS has also been linked with a dysfunction in the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain which uses dopamine to control movement. Disruption of pathways in this part of the brain can result in involuntary movements, such as those experienced in people with Parkinson’s disease. It is thought that it could also be to blame for RLS.

In some cases, RLS occurs as a result of other underlying health conditions or lifestyle factors. People with end-stage renal disease and those who undergo hemodialysis can develop RLS. Pregnancy can also cause it, particularly during the last trimester. Nerve damage, sleep deprivation, and sleep apnea are also known to cause RLS. Excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine may also be to blame.

Certain medications can also cause or aggravate RLS, such as:

  • Anti-nausea drugs
  • Anti-psychotic drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Cold and allergy medications

How is Restless Leg Syndrome Treated?

Although there is no cure for restless legs syndrome, there are several treatments that have been successful in relieving the symptoms. The key to treatment is treating the cause behind RLS.

Diet and lifestyle changes can be helpful.  Smoking, caffeine, and alcohol have all been known to make symptoms worse so minimizing these or eliminating them can be a good start.  Stretching the limbs, massage, and electrical stimulation have also helped some people.

Your doctor may also prescribe medications if diet and lifestyle changes do not help.  These medications can include dopamine (both agonists and agents), benzodiazepines, alpha2 agonists, opiates, and anticonvulsants.   These drugs come with their own side effects so they are usually only used as a last resort.

Restless Leg Syndrome Prevention

It isn’t clear whether RLS can be prevented, particularly if it is inherited. Nevertheless, the symptoms of it can be managed to prevent frequent and severe episodes. Firstly, if an underlying condition is to blame for RLS, that should be treated first. If a medication is responsible for it, it may be possible to try alternative medicines which could offer less severe side effects.

It may be possible to alleviate RLS by reducing consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Those who smoke should try to quit completely, since nicotine replacement therapies may cause RLS to stay the same or worsen. Giving up alcohol and caffeine completely may not be necessary, but it might help to stop consumption several hours before going to sleep.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
December 07, 2017