Diagnosing restless legs syndrome  

There's no single test for diagnosing restless legs syndrome.

A diagnosis will be based on your symptoms, your medical and family history, a physical examination, and your test results.

Your GP should be able to diagnose restless legs syndrome, but they may refer you to a neurologist if there's any uncertainty.

There are four main criteria your GP or specialist will look for to confirm a diagnosis. These are:

  • an overwhelming urge to move your legs, usually with an uncomfortable sensation such as itching or tingling
  • your symptoms occur or get worse when you're resting or inactive
  • your symptoms are relieved by moving your legs or rubbing them
  • your symptoms are worse during the evening or at night

Assessing your symptoms

Your GP or specialist will ask you about the pattern of your symptoms to help assess their severity. For example, they may ask you:

  • how often you have symptoms
  • how unpleasant you find your symptoms
  • whether your symptoms cause significant distress
  • whether your sleep is disrupted, making you tired during the day

Keeping a sleep diary may help your doctor assess your symptoms. You can use the diary to record your daily sleeping habits, such as the time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake during the night, and episodes of tiredness during the day.

Mild symptoms of restless legs syndrome can usually be treated by making lifestyle changes – for example, establishing a regular sleeping pattern and avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol or tobacco, in the evening.

If your symptoms are more severe, you may need medication to bring them under control.

Read more about treating restless leg syndrome.

Blood tests

Your GP may refer you for blood tests to confirm or rule out possible underlying causes of restless legs syndrome. For example, you may have blood tests to rule out conditions such as anaemiadiabetes and kidney function problems.

It's particularly important to find out the levels of iron in your blood because low iron levels can sometimes cause secondary restless legs syndrome. Low iron levels can be treated with iron tablets.

Sleep tests

If you have restless legs syndrome and your sleep is being severely disrupted, sleep tests – such as a suggested immobilisation test – may be recommended. The test involves lying on a bed for a set period of time without moving your legs while any involuntary leg movements are monitored.

Occasionally, polysomnography may be recommended. This is a test that measures your breathing rate, brain waves and heartbeat throughout the course of a night. The results will confirm whether you have periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS).

Page last reviewed: 02/09/2015

Next review due: 01/09/2018