Restless Leg Syndrome

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

A woman in bed with restless leg syndrome (RLS).

Restless leg syndrome facts

  • Restless leg syndrome is a condition marked by unpleasant leg sensations while resting.
  • Restless leg syndrome frequency leads to insomnia.
  • The cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown in most individuals, but many conditions have been associated with it.
  • Symptoms of restless leg syndrome are aching and an urge to move the lower extremities
  • Treatment of restless leg syndrome is directed toward any underlying illness, if known.
  • Medications are available for restless leg syndrome.
  • Home remedies for restless leg syndrome include
  • Restless leg syndrome is generally not considered curable, but treatments can substantially lessen or eradicate symptoms.
  • Other conditions that my mimic restless leg syndrome include poor circulation to the lower extremities, fibromyalgia, and neuropathy.

What is restless leg syndrome (RLS)?

Restless leg syndrome (RLS, restless legs syndrome) is a common cause of painful legs. The leg pain of restless leg syndrome typically eases with motion of the legs and becomes more noticeable at rest. Restless leg syndrome also features worsening of symptoms and leg pain during the early evening or later at night.

Restless leg syndrome is often abbreviated RLS; it has also been termed shaking leg syndrome. Nighttime involuntary jerking of the legs during sleep are also known as periodic leg/limb movement disorder.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) Symptoms

Restless leg syndrome is a common cause of painful legs. The leg pain of restless leg syndrome usually improves by moving the legs, and becomes more noticeable at rest. Symptoms of restless leg syndrome typically worsen during the early evening or later in the night; which can lead to insomnia.

Quick GuideRLS Remedies in Pictures: Home Care for Better Sleep

RLS Remedies in Pictures: Home Care for Better Sleep
An illustration portraying leg pain caused by restless leg syndrome (RLS).

What causes restless leg syndrome?

The cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown in most people. However, restless leg syndrome has been associated with

Some drugs and medications have been associated with restless leg syndrome including:

Occasionally, restless leg syndrome run in families. Recent studies have shown that restless leg syndrome appears to become more common as a person ages. Also, poor venous circulation of the legs (such as with varicose veins) can cause restless leg syndrome.

An older woman rubbing her aching legs due to restless leg syndrome.

What are the symptoms of restless leg syndrome?

Many different symptoms are described by people with restless leg syndrome, for example:

  • leg pain,
  • cramps,
  • tingling,
  • itchy,
  • burning, and
  • aching.

The characteristic nighttime worsening of symptoms in persons with restless legs syndrome frequency leads to insomnia. Because of lack of sleep, children and some adults may be very drowsy, irritable, and aggressive during daytime hours.

Restless leg syndrome usually begins slowly. Over time, the legs become more affected. Less frequently, restless leg syndrome can affect the arms.

Restless Legs Syndrome Slideshow Pictures
A pregnant woman suffers from restless leg syndrom in bed.

What about restless leg syndrome during pregnancy?

Restless leg syndrome is relatively common during pregnancy, especially in the second half of pregnancy. While most medications used to treat restless leg syndrome have not been adequately studied in pregnant women, the non-medication treatments and techniques described above can be very helpful. Furthermore, avoiding caffeine, warm compresses, massage, and regular exercising according to the doctors' suggestions can be helpful.

A doctor discussing symptoms with a male patient.

How is restless leg syndrome diagnosed?

The National Institutes of Health says that four criteria must be met for the diagnosis of RLS in a person (adult or child):

  • A strong urge to move your legs. This urge often, but not always, occurs with unpleasant feelings in your legs. When the disorder is severe, you also may have the urge to move your arms.
  • Symptoms that start or get worse when you're inactive. The urge to move increases when you're sitting still or lying down and resting.
  • Relief from moving. Movement, especially walking, helps relieve the unpleasant feelings.
  • Symptoms that start or get worse in the evening or at night.
Illustration of nerves.

Can other conditions mimic restless leg syndrome?

There are many conditions which can mimic restless leg syndrome including:

In children, restless leg syndrome is often misdiagnosed as "growing pains."

Photo collage of a doctor performing a blood test on a patient, varicose veins on a leg, coffee, alcoholic drink, cigarette, and women power walking for exercise.

What is the treatment for restless leg syndrome?

Treatment of restless leg syndrome is first directed toward any underlying illness, if known. For example:

  • Blood testing to reveal underlying iron deficiency anemia may reveal the underlying cause.
  • If varicose veins are thought to be the cause, then surgery to repair the circulation may be considered.
  • Reduction or elimination of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol from a person's diet can be very helpful.
  • Stopping smoking can significantly diminish or prevent symptoms.
  • Getting better sleep and exercise can help some persons affected by restless legs.
  • Pregnant women who do not sleep well at night and other people with sleep disorders may develop RLS.
An assortment of medication pills.

What medications are used to treat restless leg syndrome?

Medications used to treat restless leg syndrome include:

A woman taking a bath to ease her restless leg syndrome pain.

5 remedies and complimentary/alternative treatments for restless leg syndrome

Other treatments that have been helpful for some patients include:

  1. warm/cold baths,
  2. electric nerve stimulation,
  3. oral magnesium,
  4. acupuncture, and
  5. natural treatments such as quinine water at bedtime (tonic water).

Unfortunately, some of the above mentioned medications may produce side effects, so patients are urged to discuss any conditions that arise after taking medication for RLS with their doctor.

Anxiety may trigger or increase RLS symptoms according to some investigators. Consequently, many over-the-counter items such as lavender soap fumes or acupuncture, or other home remedies and natural treatments may reduce anxiety and thus reduce symptoms of RLS, according to anecdotal claims. However, there is no known cure for RLS and, in most people, any underlying cause should be ruled out by medical tests.

Restless leg syndrome is not curable, but what is the prognosis?

Restless leg syndrome generally responds very well to home remedies and medications. The outlook is excellent for those affected and restless leg syndrome does not impair the function of the legs.

Quick GuideRLS Remedies in Pictures: Home Care for Better Sleep

RLS Remedies in Pictures: Home Care for Better Sleep
Reviewed on 10/7/2016
References
Medically reviewed by Joseph Carcione, DO; American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

REFERENCE: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Restless Legs Syndrome.
<http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/rls/rls_WhatIs.html>

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