Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an unsettling and poorly understood movement disorder affecting 3 - 15% of the general population. RLS can affect both children and adults. Although effective treatments are available, the condition often remains undiagnosed.
Symptoms of RLS. The core symptom of RLS is an irresistible urge to move the legs (medically known as akathisia). Some people describe this symptom as a sense of unease and weariness in the lower leg, which is aggravated by rest and relieved by movement. Specific characteristics of RLS include:
- "Pulling, searing, drawing, tingling, bubbling, or crawling" beneath the skin, usually in the calf area, causing an irresistible urge to move the legs. These sensations can occur mostly in the lower legs, but they can sometimes affect the thighs, feet, and even the upper body. RLS-type symptoms may also occur in the arms. These may be the first symptoms of RLS in some people.
- About 80% of patients with RLS also have semi-rhythmic movements during sleep, a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). (See description below)
- Itching and pain, particularly aching pain, may be present.
- Patients experience symptoms when they feel most relaxed and their legs are at rest. (Movement, however, brings relief.) Symptoms usually occur at night when lying down, or sometimes during the day while sitting.
- Episodes of RLS usually develop between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Symptoms are often most severe shortly after midnight. They usually disappear by morning. If the condition becomes more severe, people may begin to have symptoms during the day. These symptoms are always worse at night, however.
- At night, the unpleasant sensations and the resulting uncontrollable urge to move the legs can often disturb sleep. Ignoring the need to move the legs usually only builds up tension until they jerk uncontrollably. If patients experience symptoms during the day, they usually feel compelled to move their legs in order to relieve the symptoms, making it difficult to sit during air or car travel, or through classes or meetings.
Late-onset and Early-onset Forms. There appear to be two forms of RLS, early-onset and late-onset. Each form may have different characteristics:
Review Date: 10/15/2010
Reviewed By: Reviewed by: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.