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What is restless leg syndrome (RLS)?

Restless legs syndrome is a sleep disorder in which a person experiences unpleasant sensations in the legs, which are described as creeping, crawling, tingling, pulling and/or painful.

Symptoms

These sensations usually occur in the calf area, but may be felt anywhere from the thigh to the ankle. One or both legs may be affected. For some people, the sensations are also felt in the arms. Sensations occur when the person with RLS lies down or sits for prolonged periods of time, causing:

  • The irresistible urge to move the legs for temporary relief of symptoms by:
    • Stretching or bending
    • Rubbing the legs
    • Tossing or turning in bed
    • Getting up and pacing
  • A definite worsening of the discomfort when lying down, especially when trying to fall asleep at night, or during other forms of inactivity, including just sitting
  • A tendency to experience the most discomfort late in the day and at night

Some people have no definite sensation, but feel the need to move.

Causes

The cause of RLS is still unknown. Some cases are believed to be inherited, and some cases have been associated with nerve damage in the legs due to diabetes, kidney problems or alcoholism. Iron deficiency can hasten the onset of RLS.

Related conditions

Sleep problems are common in people with RLS because of the difficulty it causes in getting to sleep. Severe daytime fatigue can be a significant problem for many people.

How common is it?

As many as 10 percent of people in the U.S. may have RLS.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can diagnose RLS based on your signs and symptoms, a complete medical history and a physical examination. In addition, tests (such as laboratory tests including a ferritin level or a sleep study) may be performed. Currently, there is not a definitive test to diagnose RLS.

Specific treatment for restless legs syndrome will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Types of treatment

Treatment options for restless legs syndrome may include:

  • Implementing a good sleep habits program
  • Eliminating activities that worsen symptoms
  • Eliminating caffeine, alcohol and tobacco intake, which may worsen symptoms
  • Regular, moderate exercise
  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet
  • Treating underlying chronic conditions
  • Medications, including:
    • Dopaminergic agents (drugs that increase dopamine)
    • Benzodiazepines, such as clonazepam and diazepam
    • Opioids, such as codeine, propoxyphene or oxycodone
    • Anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin and pregabalin
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