Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder of the part of the nervous system that affects movements of the legs. Because it usually interferes with sleep, it also is considered a sleep disorder.
Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome
People with RLS have strange sensations in their legs (and sometimes arms) and an irresistible urge to move their legs to relieve the sensations. The sensations are difficult to describe: they are not painful, but an uncomfortable, "itchy," "pins and needles," or "creepy crawly" feeling deep in the legs. The sensations are usually worse at rest, especially when lying in bed. The sensations lead to walking discomfort, sleep deprivation, and stress.
The severity of RLS symptoms ranges from mild to intolerable. Symptoms get gradually worse over time in about two thirds of people with the condition and may be severe enough to be disabling. The symptoms are generally worse in the evening and night and less severe in the morning. While the symptoms are usually quite mild in young adults, by age 50 the symptoms may cause severe nightly sleep disruption that can significantly impair a person's quality of life.
Who Gets Restless Legs Syndrome?
RLS affects about 10% of the U.S. population. It affects both men and women and may begin at any age, even in infants and young children. Most people who are affected severely are middle-aged or older.
RLS is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed. In many people the condition it is not diagnosed until 10-20 years after symptoms begin. Once correctly diagnosed, RLS can often be treated successfully.
There are no cures for primary restless legs syndrome, although various treatments often can help relieve symptoms. Treatment for secondary restless legs syndrome (RLS caused by an underlying medical problem) involves treating the underlying cause.
The First Step
The first line of defense against restless legs syndrome is to avoid substances or foods that may be causing or worsening the problem. Stay away from alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. This may partly relieve your symptoms. In addition, review all medications you are taking with your doctor to determine if any of these drugs could be causing the problem.
Any underlying medical conditions, such as anemia, diabetes, nutritional deficiencies, kidney disease, thyroid disease, varicose veins, or Parkinson's disease, should be treated. Dietary supplements to correct vitamin or mineral deficiency may be recommended. For some people, these treatments are all that is needed to relieve RLS symptoms.
You may also benefit from physical therapy and self-care treatments, such as stretching, taking hot or cold baths, whirlpool baths, applying hot or cold packs to the affected area, limb massage, or vibratory or electrical stimulation of the feet and toes before bedtime. Exercise and relaxation techniques also may be helpful.
Daily drug treatment is usually recommended only for people who have RLS symptoms at least three nights a week, or as determined by your doctor. Keep in mind that medications used to treat primary RLS do not cure the condition, but only relieve symptoms. People whose RLS symptoms occur sporadically may be prescribed medication to take only when they have symptoms.
The following medications are the most widely prescribed to treat RLS. They may be given alone or, in certain cases, in combination. Your doctor will prescribe the best treatment plan for you.