5 Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

A strong urge to move your legs is just one symptom of the condition that may be costing you sleep.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a neurological sensory disorder. Typically, RLS causes unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them, adversely affecting sleep.

RLS is tricky to diagnose because symptoms tend to worsen at night. So, symptoms are less evident in a healthcare provider's office.

About seven to 10 percent of people in the United States have RLS. The condition can appear or worsen during pregnancy and is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), diabetes, or anemia.

Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms

Healthcare providers use five criteria to diagnose RLS. If you think you might have RLS, read on to learn about the symptoms and criteria and when to see a healthcare provider.

A Strong Urge To Move Your Legs

One of the hallmark symptoms of RLS is an intense urge to move your legs. You may also feel uncomfortable sensations, such as creeping, itching, pulling, tugging, or the beginning of a cramp. You may have those feelings in one or both legs.

In contrast, some people may not feel any of those sensations. In some cases, the arms or other body parts may also be involved in addition to the legs.

Symptoms Begin or Worsen at Rest

For many people with RLS, the urge to move begins or worsens during rest periods or inactivity, such as lying down or sitting. 

The longer you are at rest, the greater the chance you'll experience symptoms. For example, with RLS, symptoms usually worsen at night, greatly affecting sleep.

Moving Your Legs Improves Symptoms

With RLS, you may find that only walking, stretching, or other movements relieve uncomfortable sensations.

Moving may partly or wholly relieve discomfort. Typically, those feelings go away soon after starting any physical activity. Also, the relief tends to last as long as you're moving.

For example, according to a review published in 2019 in Sleep Science, researchers found that exercise was an effective treatment for sleep disorders, including RLS. However, the researchers noted that studies on the effects of physical activity on RLS symptoms were lacking.

Symptoms Are Worse in the Evening

If you have RLS, your symptoms will likely get worse at night. If they aren't worse at night, your symptoms may not be RLS. Even so, some people with RLS can also have severe daytime symptoms.

A review published in 2015 in Sleep Medicine studied the prevalence of daytime symptoms among people with RLS. The researchers found that one-third of the people studied had RLS symptoms during the early morning that worsened as the day progressed.

Nothing Else Could Be Causing Your Symptoms

The final requirement for an RLS diagnosis is that another medical or behavioral condition can't account for your symptoms. Those conditions may include leg cramps or habitual foot tapping.

For example, a review published in 2014 in Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics noted that people often confuse RLS with nocturnal leg cramps. The researchers pointed out that nocturnal leg cramps often cause painful muscle movements, unlike RLS. In contrast, RLS typically causes creeping, crawling, and tingling feelings.

Restless Legs Syndrome Risk Factors

Some people have a high risk of developing RLS. For example, older adults and women are more likely to have RLS than others. Other risk factors for RLS include:

  • Anemia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease (CKD)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Iron, magnesium, or folic acid deficiency
  • Stopping sedative use
  • Using alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine
  • Certain medicines, such as lithium and calcium channel blockers 

If You Have Symptoms

See a healthcare provider if you have RLS symptoms and are experiencing discomfort. A healthcare provider may suggest lifestyle changes and medications to treat your symptoms if you have RLS. 

For example, lifestyle changes include:

  • Getting enough sleep and going to sleep at the same time each day
  • Finding ways to relax every day, such as yoga and meditation
  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco
  • Using hot and cold compresses  
  • Taking hot and cold baths baths
  • Massaging your limbs  

Also, prescription medications may include:

  • Mirapex (pramipexole)
  • Requip (ropinirole)
  • Sleeping medicines

A Quick Review

RLS is a sleep and neurological sensory disorder that causes unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs. With RLS, those sensations cause an irresistible urge to move your legs. 

RLS can be an unpleasant condition, but it's also treatable. Diagnosing RLS can be tricky since symptoms mostly appear or worsen at night and are not always easy to evaluate. 

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