Restless Leg Syndrome

Learn about restless legs syndrome (RLS), its causes, signs and symptoms, diagnosis and treatments offered by the neurology team at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which a person has a strong urge to move his or her legs to stop uncomfortable burning, itching, creeping, tugging, crawling or painful sensations. The symptoms of RLS usually occur when a person is lying or sitting down, and they are worse at night.

As many as 1 in 10 people in the United States may have restless legs syndrome. The condition may not be diagnosed until 10 to 20 years after symptoms develop. In some patients, RLS may worsen with age, while others experience short periods of remission that may last for days, weeks or months.

Signs of RLS

RLS sensations usually occur in the calf area but may be felt anywhere from the thigh to the ankle. One or both legs and sometimes the arms may be affected.

People with RLS have an irresistible urge to move the affected limb when the sensations occur. Some patients have no definite abnormal sensation except for the need to move. Moving often relieves the limb discomfort.

Sleep problems are common with RLS because of the difficulty it causes in relaxing and initiating sleep. As a result, severe daytime fatigue can be a significant problem for people with RLS.

Diagnosis and next steps

The cause of RLS is still unknown. Some cases are believed to be inherited, and some have been associated with nerve damage in the legs due to diabetes, kidney problems or alcoholism. Some are related to iron deficiency.

There is currently no test to definitively diagnose RLS. Your LVHN primary care provider or neurologist may order laboratory (blood) or other tests that can help determine if you have a condition that can worsen RLS or has symptoms similar to RLS.

RLS treatment may include:

  • Implementing a good sleep habits program
  • Eliminating activities that worsen symptoms
  • Eliminating caffeine, alcohol and tobacco
  • Getting regular, moderate exercise
  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet
  • Treating underlying chronic conditions

Medications, such as those that increase dopamine levels in the brain or anticonvulsants, among others, may be prescribed by your LVHN primary care provider or neurologist to manage RLS.

Over time, medications used to manage RLS may lose effectiveness and you may need to try another prescription drug approach.