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Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually due to leg discomfort.  It typically happens in the evenings or nights while you're sitting or lying down. Moving eases the unpleasant feeling temporarily.

Restless legs syndrome, now known as restless legs syndrome/Willis-Ekbom disease (RLS/WED), can begin at any age and generally worsens as you age. It can disrupt sleep — leading to daytime drowsiness — and make traveling difficult.

Simple self-care steps and lifestyle changes may help you. Medications also help many people with restless legs syndrome.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

The compelling desire to move is what gives restless legs syndrome its name. Common characteristics of RLS signs and symptoms include:

  • Sensation starts after being at rest. The sensation typically begins after you've been lying down or sitting for an extended time, such as in a car, airplane or movie theater.
  • Relief by movement. The sensation of RLS/WED lessens with movement, such as stretching, jiggling your legs, pacing or walking.
  • Worsening of symptoms in the evening. Symptoms occur mainly at night.
  • Nighttime leg twitching. RLS/WED may be associated with another, more common condition called periodic limb movement of sleep, which causes your legs to twitch and kick, possibly throughout the night, while you sleep.

People typically describe restless legs syndrome symptoms as abnormal, unpleasant sensations in their legs or feet, usually on both sides of the body. Less commonly, the sensations affect the arms.

The sensations, which generally occur within the limb rather than on the skin, are described as:

  • Crawling
  • Creeping
  • Pulling
  • Throbbing
  • Aching
  • Itching

Sometimes the sensations seem to defy description. Affected people usually don't describe the condition as a muscle cramp or numbness. They do, however, consistently describe the desire to move their legs.

It's common for symptoms to fluctuate in severity. In some cases, symptoms disappear for periods of time, then recur.

When to see a doctor

Some people with restless legs syndrome never seek medical attention because they worry they won't be taken seriously. Some doctors wrongly attribute symptoms to nervousness, stress, insomnia or muscle cramps.

But RLS/WED has received attention and focus from the media and medical community in recent years, making more people aware of the condition.

If you think you may have RLS/WED, call your doctor.

Often, there's no known cause for restless legs syndrome. Researchers suspect the condition may be due to an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine, which sends messages to control muscle movement.

Heredity

Sometimes RLS/WED runs in families, especially if the condition starts before age 50. Researchers have identified sites on the chromosomes where genes for RLS/WED may be present.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy or hormonal changes may temporarily worsen RLS/WED signs and symptoms. Some women get RLS/WED for the first time during pregnancy, especially during their last trimester. However, signs and symptoms usually disappear after delivery.

RLS/WED can develop at any age, even during childhood. The disorder is more common with increasing age and more common in women than in men.

Restless legs syndrome usually isn't related to a serious underlying medical problem. However, RLS/WED sometimes accompanies other conditions, such as:

  • Peripheral neuropathy. This damage to the nerves in your hands and feet is sometimes due to chronic diseases such as diabetes and alcoholism.
  • Iron deficiency. Even without anemia, iron deficiency can cause or worsen RLS/WED. If you have a history of bleeding from your stomach or bowels, experience heavy menstrual periods or repeatedly donate blood, you may have iron deficiency.
  • Kidney failure. If you have kidney failure, you may also have iron deficiency, often with anemia. When kidneys don't function properly, iron stores in your blood can decrease. This, with other changes in body chemistry, may cause or worsen RLS/WED.

Although RLS/WED doesn't lead to other serious conditions, symptoms can range from barely bothersome to incapacitating. Many people with RLS/WED find it difficult to fall or stay asleep.

Severe RLS/WED can cause marked impairment in life quality and can result in depression. Insomnia may lead to excessive daytime drowsiness, but RLS/WED may prevent you from daytime napping.

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