What is restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs, and an uncontrollable, sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them for relief. The sensations range in severity from irritating to painful.

What are the causes of restless legs syndrome?

In most cases there is no known cause for RLS. Sometimes it’s caused by a disease or condition, such as anemia or pregnancy. Some medicines can also cause temporary RLS. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol may make symptoms worse. 

What are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome?

With restless legs syndrome, your legs become uncomfortable when you are lying down or sitting. Some people describe it as a creeping, crawling, tingling or burning sensation. Moving makes your legs feel better, but not for long. RLS can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Most people with RLS also have a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD is a condition in which a person’s legs twitch or jerk uncontrollably, usually during sleep. PLMD and RLS can also affect the arms. 

How does Ohio State diagnose restless legs syndrome? 

Although there is no one test that can diagnose RLS, physicians at The Ohio State Sleep Disorders Center will diagnose the condition based on your symptoms, your personal and family medical history, a physical exam and tests. They will want to know if you have any of the diseases or conditions that can trigger RLS, such as kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy or iron deficiency.

Your doctor also may want to know what medicines you take. Some medicines can trigger or worsen RLS. Your doctor will use this information to rule out other conditions that have symptoms similar to those of RLS. 

How does Ohio State treat restless legs syndrome?

For those with mild to moderate symptoms, lifestyle changes, such as regular sleep habits, relaxation techniques and moderate exercise during the day can help. If those don’t work, medicines may reduce the symptoms of RLS.

Decreased use of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco may provide some relief. Physicians may suggest that certain individuals take supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate and magnesium. Taking a hot bath, massaging the legs or using a heating pad or ice pack can help relieve symptoms in some patients.

Your physician also may suggest a variety of medications to treat RLS, including dopamine drugs, central nervous system depressants, opioids and anticonvulsants.

Restless legs syndrome is generally a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Symptoms may gradually worsen with age. Nevertheless, current therapies can control the disorder, minimizing symptoms and increasing periods of restful sleep. In addition, some individuals have remissions, periods in which symptoms decrease or disappear for days, weeks or months, although symptoms usually eventually reappear.

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