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What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT December 03, 2019 0 Comments

woman using leg rest pillow

If you can’t sleep at night, even after a long day at work, or if you always feel an uncomfortable sensation in your legs while resting, you may have restless leg syndrome (RLS). RLS is a commonly misunderstood condition, but we’ve provided insights into RLS, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment options to help you identify and combat restless leg syndrome.

What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless leg syndrome is a neurological disorder in which you uncontrollably move your legs due to discomfort and sometimes pain. Although the condition may seem rare, studies show that RLS affects 5% to 10% of adults in the U.S.

Restless leg syndrome in one leg may move to the other. Typically, symptoms occur at night while you are resting. If the condition becomes worse, you may experience restless leg syndrome during the day as well.

What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

It is still unclear what causes restless syndrome at night. But some experts believe RLS is worsened by diseases with similar symptoms, such as nutrient deficiencies, and is most likely due to unhealthy living. The conditions below may cause or exacerbate restless leg syndrome.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome: Iron Deficiency

    Restless leg syndrome in arms and other parts of the body may be caused by a low blood count, or iron-deficiency anemia. Researchers note that a low level of iron in the blood can affect brain dopamine production, which triggers restless leg syndrome.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome: Pregnancy

    Women may have restless leg syndrome during pregnancy, specifically from week 27 until delivery, due to hormonal changes. In most cases, the symptoms dissipate after giving birth.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome: Magnesium Deficiency

    Magnesium plays a significant role in the functioning of our immune system, muscles, and nerves. Research links severe restless leg syndrome to magnesium deficiency. Treat this form of RLS with the proper dosage of magnesium supplements.

  • Severe Restless Leg Syndrome Due to Chronic Diseases

    When not treated early, restless leg syndrome causes constant crawling sensations in the limbs. This disorder can develop due to complications of another health problem, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, chronic kidney failure, diabetes, or an under active thyroid gland. In this case, the condition is called secondary restless leg syndrome.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome: Medication

    Medicines for allergy, some antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, cold medicines, and antihistamines may worsen the symptoms of restless leg syndrome. Though some types of drugs may help treat the disorder, they come with the risk of side effects.

  • Fibromyalgia and Restless Leg Syndrome

    Both RLS and fibromyalgia are neurological conditions, so the two disorders likely have common mechanisms in the nervous system. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia may be caused by a hormonal imbalance that results in sleeping difficulties.

  • Restless Leg Syndrome and Anxiety

    Anxiety, agitation, and stress can also trigger restless legs at night. Mood disorders can occur due to sleep deprivation, which can strongly resemble or even cause anxiety.

Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms

To effectively treat RLS, you must identify the underlying cause. It’s important to understand the symptoms of restless leg syndrome and what restless leg syndrome feels like. If you encounter any of the symptoms below, speak to your doctor immediately.

  • Unpleasant tingling sensation deep in the legs
  • Irresistible urge to move legs
  • Restlessness (rubbing of legs or floor pacing)
  • Throbbing pain in feet or legs
  • Sleeping problems
  • Nighttime leg kicking or twitching

Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosis

Researchers still do not know how to stop restless leg syndrome or what exact mechanisms cause it. If you feel any signs of restless leg syndrome, you should see a doctor and take a restless leg syndrome test. Your doctor may ask what medicine you are taking, as some medicines may worsen or trigger symptoms.

Restless leg syndrome is a diagnosis that requires ruling out other possibilities first. Thus, your doctor may require you to take a comprehensive physical exam and undergo a blood test to identify an iron deficiency. Imaging tests may rule out other issues. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist, who will observe your sleeping behavior and determine the cause of your sleep disorder.

Managing Restless Leg Syndrome

Effectively managing restless leg syndrome begins by arming yourself with the right information—understanding how you get restless leg syndrome, what exacerbates it, and how to relieve restless leg syndrome. By being patient and following your doctor’s orders, you’ll learn to manage restless leg syndrome so you can get the rest you need and enjoy your life.




Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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