Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep-related movement disorder in which the person feels a strong urge to move the lower limbs during periods of rest. Also called Ekbom Syndrome and Willis-Ekbom disease, RLS results in a “pins and needles” sensation in the limbs that can be a painful deterrent to sleep.
RLS sensations typically:
Occur during periods of inactivity
Become more sensitive in the evening and at night
Are relieved by movement of the limbs
Often cause sleep difficulty, leading to daytime fatigue
May cause involuntary jerking of the limbs during sleep or sleep onset
The urge is accompanied with pain or unbearable sensations which gets worse when the person rests or lies down
Some relief from the urge results from walking or stretching
The symptoms become worse at night or during rest
No other obvious cause for these symptoms
How Common is Restless Legs Syndrome?
The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation reports that up to 8 percent of adults have RLS. For around 3 percent, the disorder creates sleep disturbances severe enough to negatively impact quality of life. The disorder is twice as common in women than men and more common during certain life stages, including pregnancy. Up to a quarter of pregnant women experience RLS, which usually resolves after pregnancy. Additionally, RLS is underdiagnosed in children and is increasingly recognized as an underlying factor in some childhood sleep problems.
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder related to abnormalities in the regulation of certain neurotransmitters and nutrients. RLS not caused by another disorder is called primary or idiopathic RLS. Primary RLS is thought to result from several overlapping factors.
The first factor involves the area of the brain’s regulation of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in movement and mood regulation. Excess dopamine is thought to play a role in RLS symptoms.
The second factor involved in primary RLS is the regulation of iron. Brain imaging and autopsies have revealed low concentrations of iron in the brains of individuals afflicted with restless legs syndrome. Over 80 percent of children affected by RLS have low stored iron (ferritin).
The third factor is genetics. Researchers have identified several genetic variants associated with RLS; each variant increases RLS risk by more than 50 percent. Biochemically, the protein tyrosine phosphatase receptor type delta is highly prevalent in people with RLS.
Secondary RLS occurs as the result of another disorder or condition, or from taking certain medications.
Although RLS may produce a “pins and needles” sensation in the limbs, it is worth noting that it is not a circulation disorder. RLS is not associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Physicians use a combination of medical history and self-reported signs and symptoms to diagnose RLS. While there is no blood test to diagnose RLS, physicians may request lab tests to measure iron levels. Polysomnography can help monitor sleep patterns to determine whether an underlying sleep disorder is contributing to RLS.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, chronic RLS with two or more occurrences per week qualifies for treatment, as does intermittent RLS with severe symptoms.
A popular home remedy for restless legs syndrome involves a bar of soap in bed. Evidence pointing to the benefits of this approach is anecdotal, but it can’t hurt to try.
When RLS symptoms are mild or moderate, symptoms are usually managed with lifestyle changes and good sleep hygiene. These changes include:
Maintaining a consistent sleep routine
Keeping the bedroom dark, quiet and cool
electronics and other distractions from the bedroom
Avoiding lying in bed awake for long periods of time
People who experience severe restless legs syndrome symptoms most nights may consider medications to relieve discomfort and improve sleep. Dopamine agonists, commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease, are FDA-approved for treating RLS. These medicines include ropinirole (Requip), pramipexole (Marapex), pergolide, and levodopa.
If iron deficiency is present, iron supplementation can reverse the symptoms. The anticonvulsant medication gabapentin has also been prescribed.
The benzodiazepine clonazepam is prescribed in some countries for RLS. It is not approved by the US FDA for this condition, and US doctors do not often prescribe it. Opioids are sometimes prescribed in severe cases.