Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

Doctors are becoming more familiar with restless legs syndrome, a common, sleep-robbing condition. Restless legs syndrome symptoms include odd sensations in the legs and a strong urge to move them.

Restless legs syndrome affects more than 12 million Americans, and often requires a much larger vocabulary to describe symptoms than merely the word “restless.”

Even if you’re exhausted and it seems that every part of your body needs a good night’s rest, your legs — and your brain — may be deceiving you. Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder that can make falling and staying asleep a very difficult task.

Restless Legs Syndrome: Looking Out for Symptoms

According to the NIH, millions of people may have undiagnosed or untreated RLS, partly because they’re afraid their doctors won’t take their symptoms seriously, and partly because they may mistake the symptoms as the result of insomnia or depression. One of the hallmark RLS symptoms is an odd sensation in the legs that arises in particular settings. These sensations can feel very different for individuals with the condition, says Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, a doctor specializing in sleep disorders in Downey, Calif., and co-author of Restless Legs Syndrome: Coping With Your Sleepless Nights.

“It’s very difficult for most patients to describe their symptoms. The classical description is ‘creepy-crawly, like ants deep inside my legs,'” he says. Some people feel like it’s an electrical feeling; others feel like water is moving through their limbs. About 30 to 40 percent of people may not even have a description, just an urge to move their legs, says Dr. Buchfuhrer.

These odd sensations aren’t the only signs of restless legs syndrome. Other symptoms, according to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, include:

  • The urge to move. People with restless legs syndrome feel compelled to move their legs — often due to these strange sensations — which helps create the “restless” appearance of the condition. Once people with the condition start moving their legs, the symptoms usually go away or at least improve. When the patients stop moving, their symptoms return. Over time, movement may cease to relieve restless legs syndrome.
  • Rest may not feel the best. An aspect of the condition that’s particularly aggravating is that restless leg syndrome symptoms typically start or grow worse while you’re sitting or lying quietly. This is one reason why people with restless legs syndrome often have trouble falling asleep.
  • Increased problems at night. People typically notice that their restless legs syndrome symptoms, like the odd sensations and the urge to move, grow worse in the evening or at night. However, people with advanced restless legs syndrome may experience symptoms throughout the day.

Restless Legs Syndrome: Seeking Professional Medical Advice

Some people with restless legs syndrome may only have occasional symptoms that aren’t especially bothersome; others may have frequent symptoms that lead to lack of sleep and daytime fatigue, according to the National Institutes of Health.

If your symptoms are mild or only occur occasionally, you probably don’t need to seek professional medical care, Buchfuhrer says. However, if you have restless legs syndrome symptoms that are interfering with your life, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.

Doctors and patients alike have become more familiar with restless legs syndrome since the mid-2000s, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved medication for the condition, Buchfuhrer says. Before that time, patients might have been less willing to discuss these strange symptoms with their doctor, and doctors in turn were more likely to dismiss the symptoms or misdiagnose the condition, he says.

If you visit your doctor to discuss restless legs syndrome, be prepared to talk about your symptoms, sleep history, personal and family medical history, and any medication you may be taking.

By Eric Metcalf – Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD