What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Millions of Americans have creepy-crawly sensations at bedtime, and it has nothing to do with bedbugs. Restless legs syndrome creates distracting sensations, making it difficult to sleep.

Your eyes are heavy, your mind is tired, and your entire body is ready for bed — except for your legs. If you have a condition called restless legs syndrome (RLS), your legs seem to become jumpy and active just when you’re ready to fall asleep. This sudden urge to move your limbs may be accompanied by a tingly feeling during periods of inactivity or involuntary jerking at night.

Restless Legs Syndrome: The Causes

Restless legs syndrome is a relatively common problem that interferes with many people’s sleep. In the United States, as many as 12 million adults are affected by RLS — and millions more cases may go undiagnosed, according to the National Institutes of Health. Experts believe that people may mistake the symptoms of this neurologic sensorimotor disorder as depression or insomnia.

Women may be more likely to develop RLS, and it is particularly common in older adults; roughly 10 to 35 percent of people over the age of 65 may develop the condition. Generally, the longer you have the problem, the worse the symptoms become.

In many cases, the cause of RLS is unknown, though it does seem to run in the family. Restless legs syndrome may also be associated with the following factors:

  • Renal failure
  • Pregnancy, particularly during the final trimester
  • Diabetes and peripheral neuropathy (nerve problems in the legs)
  • Low levels of iron
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Various medications, including some used to treat nausea, seizures, and cold and allergies

In addition, other conditions may cause symptoms similar to those seen in restless leg syndrome. If you visit your doctor because you’re concerned about RLS, he may check to see if you have leg cramps, intermittent claudication (calf pain caused by a lack of blood flow to the legs), or arthritis-induced leg pain.

Restless Legs Syndrome: Talking to Your Doctor

Restless legs syndrome can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep, leaving your body fatigued and your mind fuzzy during the day. People with moderate to severe RLS may get less than five hours of sleep nightly. According to the NIH, many people don’t seek treatment because they think their doctors won’t take their symptoms seriously. In addition, doctors may misdiagnose the cause of the RLS symptoms.

Learning more about this condition may help you feel comfortable to discuss it with your doctor sooner. People affected by RLS use many words to describe the uncomfortable sensations in their legs. They may feel like bugs or worms are moving around in their legs, a “creepy-crawly” sensation, or a perception of burning or tingling. These symptoms generally aren’t noticeable during the day but become more bothersome while sitting or lying down: This is where the “restless” part of the condition begins. Moving the legs relieves the symptoms or keeps them from starting. As long as someone with RLS keeps moving her legs, the symptoms subside (eventually resuming once the movement stops).

Restless Legs Syndrome: Prevention

Avoiding any of the aforementioned risk factors may help prevent RLS. For example, taking iron supplements for iron deficiency may do the trick if this is the cause of your RLS; symptoms occurring during pregnancy may disappear after delivery. Be sure to discuss any medication that you’re taking with all of your doctors.

Your doctor may also recommend improving basic “sleep hygiene.” Smart sleeping habits may include removing distracting devices, like televisions, from the bedroom and following a strict sleep schedule.

If you have RLS, or it runs in your family, talk to your doctor. There are many ways you can modify any potential risks, as well as taking medication to control the symptoms and sleep more soundly.

By Eric Metcalf – Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD