What is Restless Legs Syndrome? A HealthCentral Explainer


What is it?

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a disruptive disorder that causes a strong urge to move your legs, often accompanied by an unpleasant feeling in them that has been described as creeping, crawling, pulling, itching, tingling, burning, aching or electric shocks. The urge to move your legs typically happens during periods of rest or inactivity, worsening at night, which can cause sleep disruptions that  lead to insomnia and fatigue.

Two types of RLS exist, one that starts early in life (before age 45). This one tends to  run in families. It also will typically last the rest of your life, and symptoms will slowly worsen over time. The second type occurs later in life, and generally is not genetic.  While there is usually an abrupt onset, symptoms do not worsen over time.

There are four key signs of RLS that need to be present for diagnosis. These include, a strong urge to move the legs (with or without the unpleasant feeling), symptoms that worsen during periods of rest or inactivity, relief that comes from moving around and symptoms that get worse at night.

[TAKE THE QUIZ: Could You Have Restless Legs Syndrome?]

What causes it?

There are several factors that may cause RLS, though research suggests the most likely one is tied to how your brain deals with iron. Iron helps to create dopamine in the brain, which works in parts of the brain that regulate movement, and to control other brain functions.

A genetic component is also at work in some cases. A new study suggests that a variation in gene BTBD9 can lead to sleep disturbances and movement. Researchers looked at fruit flies, which have a version of the same BTBD9 gene as humans. Flies also need sleep and have sleep patterns influenced in a way similar to humans. They found that flies lacking the BTBD9 gene showed loss of sleep due to more movement, and when treated with RLS drugs, showed improvements.

Nerve damage, which can be a result of diabetes. Also, certain medications may also cause RLS, including anti-nausea drugs, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines and calcium channel blockers. If a medication is causing RLS, it will stop once you stop taking that drug.

How do you treat it?

A combination of lifestyle changes and medication can be used to treat RLS. Avoiding alcohol and tobacco can limit or prevent symptoms from occurring. Adopting good sleep habits can help you fall asleep without waking during the night. This includes keeping TVs, ipads, laptops and smart phones out of the bedroom, keeping the room cool and minimizing noises and lights. Relaxation techniques and brain teasers done before bed can also promote good sleep, as well as getting regular exercise during the day.

Some activities can relieve symptoms of RLS, such as walking, stretching, taking a hot or cold bath, massaging, and using heat or ice packs. If you know you will be traveling on an airplane or sitting in a movie theater, choose an aisle seat or a spot with more leg room so you can move your legs if necessary.

Taking medication is also a possibility, but no one medicine works for all RLS sufferers. Some RLS medications that make or mimic dopamine are also approved for treating Parkinson’s disease.

[SLIDESHOW: 5 Tips for Creating a Good Sleep Environment]

Is RLS linked to other conditions?

Some disease and conditions, or even medications, can trigger RLS. These conditions include kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy and iron deficiency. However, a study from 2011 suggests that people with Parkinson’s disease may be more likely to have a leg motor restlessness, which is different from RLS.

High blood pressure is also associated with RLS, according to another 2011 study. The study looked at middle aged women with RLS and found that between 6 percent and 41 percent had an increased risk of high blood pressure compared to other women, and that risk is also linked to the severity and frequency of their RLS symptoms. Women in general are at higher risk of developing RLS, and pregnancy is an additional  risk factor. Typically RLS will develop in the last three months of pregnancy and will improve or go away after giving birth.


National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. (November 1, 2010). What is Restless Legs Syndrome? Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/rls/signs.html

Cell Press. (2012, June 2). "Genetic Cause Likely In Flies With Restless Legs Syndrome." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/246068.php.

American Academy of Neurology. (2011, November 10). "People With Parkinson's Disease More Likely To Have Leg Restlessness Than Restless Leg Syndrome." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Christian Nordqvist. (2011, October 11). "Restless Legs Syndrome Associated With High Blood Pressure." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/235797.php.