Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
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Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurologic disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them. The sensations are typically worse during periods of inactivity and usually strongest at night. The symptoms are improved with activity. For this reason, people with RLS generally have insomnia , which may be severe.


The exact cause of RLS is unknown. RLS may occur for no identifiable reason (primary RLS), or may be caused by other medical conditions or use of certain drugs (secondary RLS).

Many people with RLS also have periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). This is a related motor disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive, jerking movements that interrupt sleep.

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing RLS. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:


Symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of tingling, creeping, pulling, prickling, "pins and needles," or pain in the legs during periods of rest or inactivity—Half of patients complain of restlessness in the arms as well as legs.
  • Symptoms typically get worse at night
  • A strong urge to relieve these uncomfortable feelings with movement
  • Restlessness, including floor pacing, tossing and turning in bed, and rubbing the legs
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Hypersomnia—recurrent episodes of excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep

Symptoms may begin at any age, but are most common in people older than 60 years old. Symptoms usually increase in the evening and during times of rest, relaxation, or inactivity.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and do a physical and neurologic exam. The diagnosis is based mainly on your symptoms. There is no specific test for RLS, but tests to check for conditions that may trigger RLS include:

Nerves of the Leg

Leg Nerves

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.


There is no cure for this condition. Treatments are aimed at relieving or reducing symptoms.

Treatment for Mild Cases of RLS


  • Massage your legs.
  • Use a heating pad or ice pack.
  • Take a hot bath.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking supplements that might be helpful, such as folate, iron, magnesium, vitamins B12, C, and E.
  • Refrain from using tobacco, alcohol, or caffeine.
  • Follow a sleep routine.
  • Develop a regular, moderate exercise program.
  • Avoid the use of medications that may worsen RLS, such as antidepressants.

Treatment for Conditions That May Trigger RLS

Effective treatment of conditions that may trigger RLS can ease or even eliminate symptoms:

Treatment for Severe Cases of RLS


  • Benzodiazepines
  • Dopaminergic agents (ropinirole, pramipexole)—considered the most effective
  • Opioids
  • Anticonvulsants (gabapentin)
  • Clonidine

Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation

During this treatment, electric stimulation is done to the affected area of the leg. This is usually done 15-30 minutes before bedtime to help reduce leg jerking.


There are no guidelines for preventing RLS.


National Sleep Foundation

Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation


BC Health Guide

Canadian Sleep Society


Bradley WG, Daroff RB. Neurology in Clinical Practice . Philadelphia, PA: Butterworth Heiemann; 2004.

Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment . 45th ed. McGraw-Hill; 2006.

National Sleep Foundation website. Available at: .

Restless legs syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed May 27, 2008.

Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation website. Available at: .

Shannon, Kathleen. Restless Legs Syndrome In: Gilman S, ed. MedLink Neurology. San Diego, CA: MedLink Corp. Medlink website. Available at: Accessed May 12, 2008.

Worldwide Education and Awareness for Movement Disorders website. Available at:

Last reviewed March 2008 by J. Thomas Megerian, MD, PhD, FAAP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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