What is restless leg syndrome? Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and prevention

If you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, typically because of an uncomfortable and sometimes almost painful sensation, you could have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease. The uncontrollable urge usually happens in the evening or in bed at night when you are sitting or lying down.

Many people with RLS say that they find it hard to fall asleep.

According to an article in MedlinePlus:

“Restless legs syndrome is one of the most common sleep and movement disorders. It affects an estimated 5 to 10 percent of adults and 2 to 4 percent of children in the United States. For unknown reasons, the disorder affects women more often than men. The prevalence of restless legs syndrome increases with age.”

Causes of restless leg syndrome

Experts say that we do not know what the exact cause of RLS is. It is frequently linked to factors such as genetics, kidney failure, peripheral neuropathy, and iron deficiency. Genetics, in this context, means that it may be hereditary (it runs in families).

Symptoms can get worse for some people when they take certain medications, consume alcohol or caffeine, or are pregnant.

According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS):

“Some neurologists (specialists in treating conditions that affect the nervous system) believe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with restless legs syndrome.”

Signs and symptoms

An urge is a symptom while a shaking leg is a sign. Why? A sign is something that both the patient and others are aware of, while a symptom is only felt or sensed by the patient. If you don’t tell anybody about your urge, they won’t know.

If you have restless leg syndrome, you have a sensation of itching, pulling, aching, throbbing, or crawling in your legs. The only way to relieve those feelings is by moving your legs. People usually have the sensation in their calf, but may feel it anywhere from their angle to their thigh.

Most people say that the sensations occur when they sit for a long time or lie down. The only way they can get temporary relief is by shaking their leg(s), rubbing them, getting up and walking about, tossing or turning in bed, and stretching and bending.

Symptoms vary from person to person from mild to severe. In most cases, the condition worsens over time.

Restless Leg Syndrome - Explanation and two illustrations

Created by MedicalVocab.com using Wikimedia Commons material.

Diagnosing restless leg syndrome

Your doctor will ask you about your signs and symptoms, discuss your medical history, and perform a physical examination.

They may also order blood tests, neurological exams, and if one is available, a sleep study. As there is no specific RLS test, it is vital that you describe your signs and symptoms as clearly as possible.


We do not yet have a cure for restless leg syndrome. Treatment focuses on helping patients manage their symptoms, and may include:

  • Medications – some drugs can help control movement and leg sensations.
  • Regular exercise.
  • A healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Adequate, good-quality sleep.
  • No caffeine or alcohol. If you are a regular smoker, try to stop. For some people, nicotine may be a trigger.
  • Stop activities that cause RLS or worsen symptoms (avoid triggers).
  • Iron supplements if there is a deficiency.

If you can learn to recognize and avoid what triggers your RLS, you will get better at managing it. Some people find massage, stretching, or relaxation techniques help, while others swear by the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.

According to the Sleep Foundation:

“During the day, you may be able to ward off RLS symptoms by keeping your mind busy even when you are sitting still with activities like reading or chatting to a friend.”

“Though RLS is not life-threatening, the frustration of not being able to sleep well can take a toll on mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, or reaching out to family and friends may provide additional emotional resources for coping with RLS.”

Complications of restless leg syndrome

The main complication is sleep disruptions, which can lead to daytime drowsiness, moodiness, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating.

It may have a negative impact on the patient’s career prospects and overall quality of life if their symptoms are severe.

Interesting related article:
Is adenosine the missing link in restless leg syndrome?” (https://home.liebertpub.com)