What Is Restless Legs Syndrome? What Are Its Causes, Symptoms and How To Deal With It?

Do you sometimes have difficulties staying asleep because of annoying itching in your legs that urges you to move them constantly? If so, you may have a Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS).

What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis Ekborn Disease, is a disorder that affects nervous system and causes uncomfortable “pins and needles” sensation in limbs and a strong urge to move the legs. Since it disrupts the sleep, it is also considered to be some kind of sleep disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of the Restless Legs Syndrome?

Symptoms usually occur in the late afternoon or evening and are most severe during the night when a person is resting. They also may occur when someone is not active enough and sitting for a long period. As the symptoms usually become worse during the night and can interfere with sleep, it may be difficult for a person to fall asleep again after waking up.

RLS can cause fatigue and daytime sleepiness, which can further affect concentration, mood, personal relationships and ability to perform well at school and job. People with this disorder are often unable to pay full attention and concentrate, have difficulties memorizing things or fail to perform simple daily tasks. It can affect their productivity and cause depression and anxiety too.

As we mentioned, people with Restless Legs Syndrome experience uncomfortable sensation in their legs and a strong urge to move them to relieve the symptoms. That’s why they constantly move their legs, walk around, or toss and turn in bed. It is difficult to tell what exactly they feel in their legs, but the sensation is often described as itching, aching throbbing, pulling and crawling and may range in severity from slightly uncomfortable, irritating to painful.

This may also affect the arms, but rarely head or chest, and it usually occurs on both sides of the body, although it may occur on just one side as well or alternate between the sides.

RLS symptoms may also vary in frequency and severity from day to day. In some cases that are not so severe, the symptoms occur once to twice a week and often result in inability to fall asleep quickly and may affect daytime functioning. In severe cases, the symptoms occur more than twice a week and result in serious interruptions of sleep, interfere with normal functioning during the day and affect the quality of one’s life.

Although some people may experience slight improvement during the early stages if this disorder, the symptoms only become worse over time.

Who Can Get Restless Legs Syndrome?

It has been estimated that around 10% of the US population is affected by Restless Legs Syndrome. It affects both men and women, regardless of their age, although it is more common in women, even in young children. Most affected people are middle-aged or older. It is also common during pregnancy and disappears one month after delivery.

It is often difficult to recognize this disorder, or doctors fail to diagnose it, especially when it is in the early stages when symptoms are mild. Once correctly diagnosed, it can be treated successfully.

What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?

In many cases, doctors do not know the exact cause of restless legs syndrome. They suspect that genes play a significant role in this. Other factors that are often associated with the appearance of Restless Legs Syndrome include: 

  •  Medical conditions and diseases – Certain diseases and medical conditions such as iron deficiency, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy may cause RLS. Treating these conditions often gives some relief from RLS symptoms.
  • Medications – Some medications such as antidepressants, anti nausea drugs, anti psychotic drugs, allergy and cold medications may worsen the symptoms.
  • Pregnancy – As we mentioned, RLS is common during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester and usually go away after delivery.

Other factors, including sleep deprivation and the use of alcohol can cause the appearance of RLS or worsen the existing symptoms.

In addition, RLS can be primary and secondary. Primary or idiopathic RLS is not caused by any disorder, while the secondary RLS occurs as the result of another disorder or condition, or from taking some medications like we mentioned above.

How Is Restless Legs Syndrome Diagnosed?

To diagnose RLS, physicians use a combination of medical history and those signs and symptoms that patients report. There are no medical tests that can be used to diagnose RLS, although some doctors may use blood tests and other lab tests to measure iron levels and detect other conditions that may be the cause of the RLS symptoms.

Polysomnography can also help as it allows monitoring sleep patterns in order to determine whether an underlying sleep disorder is contributing to RLS.

Diagnosing RLS in children may be especially difficult, as it may be hard for children to describe what exactly they are experiencing, when and how the symptoms occur, and how long they last.

How Is Restless Legs Syndrome Treated?

There are some treatments for RLS that can ease the symptoms. When symptoms are mild to moderate, they can be managed with several simple lifestyle changes such as establishing regular sleep routine, exercising regularly, cutting down on daily use of caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, keeping the bedroom quiet, dark and cool, removing electronics and other distractions from bedroom, or getting a comfortable new mattress are those we have reviewed (Click here to read our mattress reviews). Treatment of a condition that stands behind RLS also may provide relief of symptoms. 

People who experience severe symptoms may consider medications that will help them get rid of discomfort and improve their sleep. These medications include: dopamine agonists, iron supplements, anticonvulsant medication gabapentin, opiods as well as the benziodiazepine clonazepam which is prescribed in some countries for RLS, but which is forbidden in the US.