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Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

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Restless Legs Syndrome is a type of sleep-related movement disorder. It is also called Willis-Ekbom Disease. The symptoms of this disorder often present itself in the early hours of the evening or even as early as during the late afternoon. These symptoms are often at its most severe during the night while the patient is at rest. They often experienced during inactivity such as while sitting or lying in bed. A person can be reclining on a chair while watching a movie or lying on a bed while reading a book.

Restless Legs Syndrome is a sleep disorder because the symptoms are triggered when someone rests or attempts to sleep. It is also considered a movement disorder because of the fact that once a person experiences the symptoms of RLS, that person is forced to move his or her legs in order to relieve the symptoms.

RLS is quite common and affects more people than even Type 2 Diabetes. It is estimated that RLS affects between 7 to 8% of the population. Of this number, 2-3% experience severe symptoms and require medication.

What are the common signs of RLS?

Aside from the uncontrollable urge to move their limbs, a person with RLS also experiences uncomfortable sensations in their legs. Those who suffer from RLS often describe the sensations as aching, crawling, creeping, throbbing, pulling, or itching sensations. Some patients describe RLS as similar to muscle cramps or numbness. Most of the time these sensations affect both sides of the body although they can also occur on just one side of the body.

While most sensations are just uncomfortable and irritating, they can be painful in some cases. The symptoms of RLS can fluctuate in severity. There may be weeks when the symptoms are just uncomfortable and weeks when the symptoms are quite severe and even painful.

The frequency of these symptoms may vary from person to person. In most cases the symptoms are moderate and occur only once or twice a week. In severe cases a person can experience the symptoms of RLS more than twice a week. It is also possible for a person with RLS to experience remissions. Sometimes a person with RLS will experience improvement for a few weeks or even up to a few months. However, symptoms would start to gradually reappear.

What causes Restless Legs Syndrome?

In most cases the cause of RLS is difficult to determine. There is a genetic component associated with RLS, however. RLS can be found in families where symptoms of RLS appear before the age of 40. There are specific gene variants associated with RLS. There is also evidence that low levels of iron in the brain may be responsible for RLS.

Studies suggest that RLS can be a result of a dysfunction in one of the sections of the brain that use the brain chemical dopamine. This section of the brain is the basal ganglia. The chemical dopamine is responsible for purposeful muscle activity. When these pathways get disrupted, it can result in involuntary movements. This is why those with Parkinson’s Disease have higher chances of developing RLS. Parkinson’s Disease is a disorder of the basal ganglia’s dopamine pathways.

There are also certain medications that can aggravate RLS symptoms. Those who take anti-nausea medications and antipsychotic drugs have higher chances of developing RLS. Antidepressants that increase serotonin can also worsen RLS symptoms.

Individuals who suffer from end-stage renal disease and frequently undergo hemodialysis also have a higher chance of developing RLS. RLL can also be a result of nerve damage. Pregnant women, especially those in the last trimester, can experience RLS. However, the symptoms of RLS due to pregnancy usually disappear within a month after delivery.

Can RLS be treated?

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

Yes, Restless Legs Syndrome is treatable. Treatment of RLS is often focused on relieving its symptoms. The easiest way to temporarily relieve the symptoms of RLS is by moving the affected limb. Moving and stretching can help relieve the symptoms of RLS. Since RLS is often associated with iron deficiency, taking iron supplements can be helpful.

Other treatments for RLS include:

Anti-seizure drugs

Anti-seizure drugs are the most commonly prescribed drugs for patients who suffer from RLS. Gabapentin is one such drug. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved Gabapentin as a treatment for RLS.

Gabapentin can reduce uncomfortable sensations associated with RLS. Taking Gabapentin can decrease the creeping, itching, or crawling sensations caused by RLS. It can also reduce nerve pain. However, taking Gabapentin can also result in side effects like dizziness, fatigue, and sleepiness.

Dopaminergic Agents

These are drugs that increase dopamine effect. They are used to treat Parkinson’s Disease. Examples of this type of drugs are Ropinirole and Pramipexole. When taken at nighttime, they can reduce the symptoms of RLS.


Benzodiazepines are drugs prescribed as a treatment for anxiety, insomnia, and muscle spasms. These should only be taken immediately before bedtime because they can cause reduced energy, loss of concentration, and daytime sleepiness. They are also not recommended for those who suffer from sleep apnea. This is because Benzodiazepines can aggravate sleep apnea. They are not frequently prescribed because their side effects are more severe compared to other sleep medications.

Additional Resources

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

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