Introduction 

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease (WED), is a common condition affecting the nervous system.

It causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs, and occasionally the arms. It also causes an unpleasant feeling in the feet, calves and thighs, which is often felt as a crawling or creeping sensation. The sensation is often worse in the evening or at night.

Restless legs syndrome is also associated with involuntary jerking of the legs and arms, known as periodic limb movements.

Symptoms can vary from being mild to severe. In severe cases, the condition can be distressing and can disrupt daily activities.

Some people have symptoms now and again, while others have them every day. Read more about the symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

Causes of RLS

In the majority of cases, there is no obvious cause of restless legs syndrome. Doctors may refer to this as idiopathic RLS, or primary RLS. This type of restless legs syndrome can run in families.

Some neurologists (experts in treating conditions that affect the nervous system) share the opinion that symptoms may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with restless legs syndrome.

Some cases of restless legs syndrome are caused by an underlying health condition, such as iron deficiency anaemia, or kidney failure. Doctors may refer to this as secondary RLS.

There is also a link between restless legs syndrome and pregnancy and around one in five pregnant women will experience symptoms in the last three months of their pregnancy, although it is not clear exactly why. In this case, it often goes away once the woman has given birth.

Read more about the causes of restless legs syndrome.

Treating RLS

Mild cases of restless legs syndrome that are not linked to an underlying health condition may not require any treatment other than making a few lifestyle changes, such as:

  • adopting good sleep hygiene - for example, sleeping regular hours and avoiding alcohol and caffeine late at night
  • quitting smoking (if you smoke)
  • exercising regularly during the daytime

If the symptoms are more severe, medication may be needed to regulate the levels of dopamine and iron in the body.

If restless legs syndrome is caused by iron deficiency anaemia, for example, then iron supplements may be all that is needed to treat the symptoms.

Read more about the treatment of restless legs syndrome.

Who is affected?

As many as one in ten people are affected by restless legs syndrome at some point in their life.

Women are twice as likely to develop restless legs syndrome than men. The condition is also more common in middle age, but the symptoms can develop at any age, including childhood.

Outlook

If you are able to address the underlying cause of restless legs syndrome, the symptoms will usually go away. 

However, if the cause is unknown, the symptoms can get worse with time and severely affect the person's life. It's not life-threatening, but it can severely disrupt sleep (insomnia) and trigger anxiety and depression.

The charity Restless Leg Syndrome UK offers support and more information for people affected by restless legs syndrome, and they may be able to put you in touch with others affected by the condition.




Restless legs syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a fairly common condition that causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs and is related to an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine. Dr Julian Spinks emphasises the importance of good sleep and talks about how the symptoms of RLS can be reduced.

Media last reviewed: 19/03/2013

Next review due: 19/03/2015

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Page last reviewed: 18/07/2013

Next review due: 18/07/2015