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Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common neurological disorder that affects up to 10% of the population in the United States. This condition is characterized by an overwhelming and irresistible urge to move the legs, often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations. RLS can significantly disrupt sleep and daily activities, causing distress and affecting the quality of life for those who experience it.

What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome is a condition that primarily affects the legs, although it can also occur in the arms, chest, or head in rare cases. People with RLS describe a range of sensations, such as crawling, creeping, pulling, throbbing, aching, itching, or an electric-like feeling in their legs. These sensations typically worsen during periods of rest or inactivity, especially in the evening or at night. Moving the legs temporarily relieves the discomfort, but the sensations often return once the movement stops.

Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

The main symptom of RLS is an overwhelming urge to move the legs. This urge is often accompanied by unusual and uncomfortable sensations. Individuals with RLS may experience:

  • Sensations that begin while resting: The discomfort typically arises after prolonged periods of inactivity, such as sitting or lying down.
  • Relief with movement: Moving the legs, stretching, or walking can alleviate the uncomfortable sensations temporarily.
  • Worsening of symptoms in the evening: RLS symptoms tend to be more intense during the evening and night, making it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Nighttime leg twitching: Many individuals with RLS also experience periodic limb movements during sleep, which involves involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements.

The severity and frequency of RLS symptoms can vary from person to person. Some individuals may only experience mild symptoms occasionally, while others may have more severe symptoms that significantly impact their ability to sleep and carry out daily activities.

Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome

The exact cause of restless legs syndrome is not fully understood. However, several factors may contribute to the development of RLS. In some cases, it may be idiopathic or primary, meaning there is no known cause. Other potential causes and risk factors include:

  • Genetic predisposition: RLS often runs in families, suggesting a genetic component to the condition.
  • Dopamine imbalance: Disruption in the brain’s dopamine system, which is involved in controlling muscle movement, may play a role in RLS.
  • Underlying health conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as iron deficiency anemia, kidney failure, peripheral neuropathy, and Parkinson’s disease, may trigger or worsen RLS symptoms.
  • Pregnancy: RLS symptoms can occur or worsen during pregnancy, particularly in the last trimester. The exact reason for this association is not fully understood.

It is important to note that RLS can also be exacerbated by lifestyle factors, such as sleep deprivation, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine consumption, as well as certain medications.

Diagnosing Restless Legs Syndrome

Diagnosing restless legs syndrome is primarily based on a thorough evaluation of the individual’s symptoms and medical history. There is no specific test for RLS, so healthcare providers rely on the following criteria to make a diagnosis:

  1. Overwhelming urge to move the legs, often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations.
  2. Symptoms worsen during rest or inactivity and are relieved by movement.
  3. Symptoms primarily occur in the evening or at night.
  4. Symptoms are not caused by any other underlying medical or behavioral condition.

Healthcare providers may also perform neurological and physical examinations to rule out other potential causes and may order blood tests to assess iron levels and exclude conditions that may mimic RLS symptoms.

Treatment Options for Restless Legs Syndrome

While there is no cure for restless legs syndrome, various treatment options can help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and the underlying cause, if identified. Treatment approaches for RLS may include:

Lifestyle Changes

In mild to moderate cases of RLS, lifestyle modifications can be effective in reducing symptoms. These may include:

  • Establishing a regular sleep pattern: Going to bed and waking up at consistent times can help regulate sleep and alleviate RLS symptoms.
  • Regular exercise: Engaging in moderate exercise during the day can promote better sleep and reduce RLS symptoms.
  • Avoiding triggers: Limiting or avoiding the consumption of caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, especially in the evening, may help manage symptoms.
  • Applying heat or cold: Using heating pads, ice packs, or taking warm baths can provide temporary relief from RLS discomfort.
  • Leg massages: Gentle leg massages can help alleviate symptoms and promote relaxation.


In more severe cases of RLS or when lifestyle changes are not sufficient, medications may be prescribed to control symptoms. These may include:

  • Dopaminergic agents: Medications that increase dopamine levels in the brain, such as pramipexole, ropinirole, and rotigotine, can effectively manage RLS symptoms.
  • Iron supplements: If iron deficiency is identified as a contributing factor, iron supplementation may be recommended to improve symptoms.
  • Anticonvulsants: Certain anticonvulsant drugs, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, can help alleviate RLS symptoms by affecting nerve impulses.
  • Benzodiazepines: These sedative medications may be prescribed to improve sleep quality and reduce RLS-related anxiety and restlessness.

It is important to work closely with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate treatment approach and monitor the effectiveness of medications, as individual responses can vary.

Research and Outlook

Ongoing research aims to further understand the underlying causes and mechanisms of restless legs syndrome. Scientists are investigating the role of genetics, brain chemistry, and iron metabolism in the development and progression of RLS. Advances in imaging techniques and genetic studies may provide valuable insights and potential targets for future treatments.

While restless legs syndrome is a chronic condition, many individuals find relief with proper management and treatment. By working closely with healthcare providers and making necessary lifestyle adjustments, individuals with RLS can improve their sleep quality and overall well-being.

Restless legs syndrome should not be taken lightly, as it can significantly impact daily life. Seeking medical attention, discussing symptoms with a healthcare provider, and exploring appropriate treatment options are crucial steps in managing this condition effectively. Remember, you are not alone, and there are resources and support available to help you navigate the challenges of restless legs syndrome.