Restless legs syndrome

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 24, 2016
StartDiseasesRestless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is also known as Willis-Ekbom disease. It is a neurological disorder that affects people with other health issues and neurological issues. This disease makes it uncomfortable for people to fall asleep due to an uncontrollable twitching sensation and sensation to constantly move the legs.


Definition & Facts

People who suffer from RLS often complain of uncomfortable pain in the legs when the body is at rest. Many people report sensations of throbbing, pulsing or pulling in the legs. The symptoms usually subside when the person moves the muscles of the leg. 10 percent of people in the U.S. may suffer from RLS or milder forms of the syndrome. More women than men suffer from this disease, and pregnant women are more likely to suffer from RLS than women who are not pregnant.

Symptoms & Complaints

The biggest symptom of this disease is the uncontrollable desire to move legs when the body is at rest. One of the conditions of RLS is that the feelings of discomfort must happen when the legs and body are resting. One of the other symptoms is a feeling of relief after the sufferer moves the legs. Yet this relief often goes away as soon as the legs stop moving again. That said, not everyone experiences severe symptoms.

Restless legs syndrome usually affects people at night. Most people with RLS complain that the restlessness in their legs causes them to wake up the middle of the night and disturbs their partners at night. Sometimes restless legs syndrome forces an unconscious person to move his or her legs. This movement often feels like an uncontrollable twitch and is a symptom of periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD).

PLMD is a more common disorder that most people with RLS also have. PLMD can cause the sufferer to wake up in the middle of the night or to find it difficult to fall asleep. Many people complain that PLM starts just as they are about to finally fall asleep.


The exact cause of RLS is a mystery but may have something to do with the basal ganglia in the brain not functioning properly. Associated risk factors include: chronic diseases, medications and pregnancy. Diseases and conditions that may contribute to the onset of restless legs syndrome include diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and kidney failure.

Many people who suffer from diabetes often also suffer from sleep problems too. They often suffer from RLS and sleep apnea as the result of low oxygen levels. Many people who suffer from both diabetes and restless legs syndrome experience relief of RLS when they treat their diabetes. Losing weight can reduce symptoms.

Medications may also play a role in RLS. Many patients who use antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs also suffer from restless legs. Unfortunately, many people on these medications often learn to simply deal with the uncomfortable symptoms of RLS rather than go off of their medications. Over-the-counter drugs may contribute to the onset of RLS too. Some of these drugs include anti-nausea drugs and cold medications and allergy medications.

Pregnancy is a risk factor as well. RLS is most common in pregnancies when women are in their final trimester. Most of the time, RLS will go away on its own, and women may experience the syndrome until the first or second month after giving birth. Other factors include iron deficiency and peripheral neuropathy which is the result of neurons receiving the wrong signals from the brain.

Diagnosis & Tests

Unfortunately, there is no easy test for restless legs syndrome. Most doctors are unable to discover if the patient has RLS through a test or diagnosis. The easiest way to test for this disease is through a blood test that might rule out more serious conditions. Doctors also use a questionnaire to determine if a patient has RLS, but there is little else that a doctor can do to confirm RLS.

The restless legs syndrome questionnaire might include questions about the patient’s lifestyle and family history. The doctor may look at the type of medications that the patient is taking to see if any of the meds have been known to cause restless legs. Many patients also suffer from sleepiness during the day, so doctors will often look for signs of RLS when a patient complains about drowsiness or the inability to focus throughout daily activities.

Treatment & Therapy

Lifestyle changes can be adopted to treat RLS. Most people are encouraged to decrease their caloric intake and monitor the amount of fats they eat on a daily basis to lower blood pressure. Many patients are also advised to limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol in order to reduce RLS symptoms. Many people also find that reducing or ceasing use of tobacco and nicotine products also helps ease the symptoms of RLS.

Other treatments include legs massages, application of heat and vibrating pads. legs massages can help increase the stimulation in legs and the blood flow. Heating pads and hot baths can also help the muscles relax.

Drugs to treat RLS include pramipexole and rotigotine which are dopamine agonists and stimulate nerve cells in the brain. Sedatives and sleeping pill]s are often prescribed to help RLS sufferers sleep through the pain and twitching sensations, but many of these drugs do not help with daytime drowsiness as the medications can also include the side effects of drowsiness.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The best way to prevent RLS is to maintain a healthy diet with plenty of iron. Those who suffer from iron deficiencies should see their doctors about taking iron supplements. People who have a family history of restless legs syndrome should abstain from smoking tobacco and nicotine products due to the link between these products and RLS. People should also abstain from drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day to decrease the chances of developing RLS.