What Is Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?

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Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a neurological disorder that affects how messages are sent from the brain to the legs. It causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, usually accompanied by feelings of discomfort.

People with RLS often find it difficult to sleep and as a result, can experience fatigue during daily activities. While there is no cure for RLS, treatments such as medications and lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms.

Additionally, understanding what triggers symptoms may also be beneficial in reducing their severity. Common triggers include alcohol use and certain medications. Treatment typically focuses on eliminating these triggers wherever possible and relieving any underlying medical conditions. For example, people with iron deficiencies may benefit from taking iron supplements.

Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

Symptoms of RLS can be both physical and psychological, so it's important to recognize the signs. Below is a list of common symptoms of restless legs syndrome:

  1. Uncontrollable urge to move the legs due to uncomfortable sensations, such as tingling, pulling, creeping, and crawling.
  2. Symptoms are worse in the evening and at night when lying or sitting down for long periods of time.
  3. Moving around can temporarily relieve the uncomfortable sensations, but symptoms usually come back when you stop moving.
  4. Symptoms may also interfere with your sleep patterns or cause difficulty getting comfortable while sleeping.
  5. In extreme cases, constant movement of the legs can lead to exhaustion and depression due to lack of sleep.

Diagnosis

It is important to visit your doctor if you think you may have RLS. Your doctor will first need to rule out any underlying medical conditions, such as peripheral neuropathy or anemia.

You can also expect your doctor to perform a neurological exam and ask about lifestyle factors that could be contributing to your symptoms.

Causes of RLS

RLS is a neurological disorder and the exact cause is unknown. However, there are certain factors that may be linked to RLS. Below is a list of potential causes of RLS:

  1. Genetics: It is believed that genetics may play a role in the development of RLS, as it tends to run in families.
  2. Iron deficiency: Low levels of iron can cause restless legs syndrome, so people with anemia should be monitored for symptoms.
  3. Pregnancy: Women who are pregnant may be more likely to experience restless legs syndrome due to hormonal changes during pregnancy.
  4. Medications: Certain medications can cause or exacerbate RLS, including some antidepressants.
  5. Other medical conditions: Medical conditions such as kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, and peripheral neuropathy can also cause RLS.

Types of Restless Legs Syndrome

There are two types of restless legs syndrome: primary and secondary. Primary RLS is caused by an unknown factor, while secondary RLS is due to a known cause such as a medical condition or medication.

Treating RLS

There are many effective treatments available for restless legs syndrome. These include medications, lifestyle modifications, and alternative therapies like acupuncture and massage.

In addition, some people find relief from dietary changes like low-carb diets or avoiding foods with added sugar. Finally, regular exercise can help reduce the severity of RLS symptoms and improve overall health.

Below are some common steps for mitigating the symptoms of restless legs syndrome:

  1. Exercise: Regular exercise is important for managing symptoms of RLS, as it helps to improve circulation and reduce stress.
  2. Medication: Certain medications such as dopaminergic agents can be effective in treating RLS symptoms.
  3. Iron supplementation: If iron levels are low, supplementing with iron can help to manage the condition.
  4. Natural remedies: Herbal remedies such as valerian root may help to reduce RLS symptoms.
  5. Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi and meditation can help to reduce stress and improve sleep quality.
  6. Lifestyle changes: Making healthy lifestyle changes, such as reducing alcohol intake can help to reduce RLS symptoms.

Coping

People with RLS should also take measures to promote good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding caffeine before bedtime, establishing regular sleep patterns, and making sure the bedroom is dark and cool. While there is no single solution that works for everyone, taking a holistic approach to managing RLS can help people find relief from their symptoms and lead healthier lives.

Below are some tips for coping with restless legs syndrome:

  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule and try to get enough sleep each night.
  2. Avoid drinking caffeine late in the day or before going to bed.
  3. Take warm baths before bedtime as this can help to reduce symptoms of RLS.
  4. Try using heat or cold packs on your legs to provide temporary relief of symptoms.
  5. Exercise regularly and maintain an active lifestyle, but avoid any activity that is too strenuous or tiring right before bed.
  6. Make sure you are eating healthy foods and taking supplements if needed, such as iron or magnesium.

A Word From Verywell Mind

Restless legs syndrome can be a difficult condition to live with, but it is possible to manage the symptoms and lead a fulfilling life. It is important to talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have and find the best treatment option for you. With the right combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatments, you can find relief from RLS and enjoy better overall health.

14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."