The Genetics of Restless Legs Syndrome

Do your legs refuse to stay still at night? Chances are that your kids and relatives might experience this sleep disorder, too. Here’s what to do if restless legs syndrome runs in your family.

Do you have uncomfortable sensations in your legs or an uncontrollable urge to move around when you’re trying to rest? Is it interfering with your sleep? These are all signs of restless legs syndrome, a type of sleep disorder that often runs in families. About half of all people with restless legs syndrome have a family history of the condition. Recent research has pinpointed several genetic variants that may increase the risk of developing restless legs syndrome.

One study followed 671 people with restless legs syndrome and their family members for 15 years. The researchers found that siblings of people with restless legs syndrome are 3.6 times more likely to develop the condition, compared with the general population. So while the cause of restless legs syndrome is unknown — although it’s common in people with low iron levels — the evidence is mounting that some people can trace their condition back to their relatives.

Sharing a Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosis

If you have restless leg syndrome, you may want to alert close relatives and monitor your children for symptoms. Research has shown that people who are pregnant or have anemia or arthritis are at increased risk of developing familial restless legs syndrome, the type of restless legs syndrome that runs in families. They may want to be especially vigilant in watching for restless legs syndrome symptoms, since simple restless leg treatments, like iron supplements, can often bring relief.

For parents of children with restless legs syndrome, understanding the cause of your child’s symptoms can help you be more supportive. Researchers believe that early diagnosis and treatment may, in some cases, help relieve or eliminate restless legs syndrome symptoms.

The main symptom of restless legs syndrome is an uncomfortable sensation in one or both legs. People describe this sensation as a burning, creeping, crawling feeling, or tugging inside their legs. These feelings usually occur in the lower part of the leg, but they can also happen in the feet, upper leg, or arms and hands.

Symptoms of restless legs syndrome are usually most noticeable at rest and at night when you’re trying to sleep, and they often subside in the morning. Since moving the legs or walking around relieves the uncomfortable sensations in the legs, people with restless leg syndrome describe an uncontrollable urge to move their legs. In children, you may want to watch for:

  • Pacing the floor at night
  • Constant movement of the legs when sitting down
  • Tossing and turning in bed while trying to fall asleep

Restless Legs Treatment Strategies

There is currently no cure for restless legs syndrome, and symptoms tend to get worse with age. But if you, your child, or another family member is diagnosed with restless legs syndrome, there are some treatment options that can help make you more comfortable. They include:

  • Identifying the underlying cause In some people with restless legs syndrome, the cause of the condition, such as peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, or anemia, can be identified. In these cases, treating the underlying condition can relieve symptoms of restless leg syndrome.
  • Making certain lifestyle changes Taking steps such as limiting the use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; taking iron, folate, and perhaps magnesium supplements; adjusting your sleep schedule; exercising moderately; and therapies such as soaking in a hot bath, icing the legs, or having a leg massage may help relieve or reduce restless leg symptoms.
  • Trying medications Certain medications, such as dopaminergic drugs, benzodiazepines, or opioids, have been shown to help reduce symptoms of restless leg syndrome in some people.

Researchers are still working to determine how genes may play a part in your risk for developing restless legs syndrome, with the hope that future discoveries will help prevent it or lead to better treatment strategies.

By Krisha McCoy, MS – Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH