Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes you to have unpleasant feelings in your legs. You may feel sensations such as creeping, itching, crawling or pulling. These sensations can be painful and often occur in the evening when you are lying down.

RLS may affect one or both legs and it may affect your arms as well. The sensations are worse when you lie or sit for long stretches of time. This includes sitting at a desk or in a car, or lying down.

Usually, the symptoms go away when you walk, exercise, stretch or rub your legs. Symptoms get worse when you are relaxed. You may have problems falling asleep. Once you do, you probably sleep better at the end of the night or in the morning. As a result, you feel sleepy during the day.

Both men and women get restless leg syndrome. Although RLS often affects older people, it can occur in all age groups.

Common symptoms of restless leg syndrome include:

  • unpleasant sensations in your legs (creeping, crawling, pulling or painful)
  • sensations relieved by walking, stretching, massage or baths (hot or cold)
  • leg discomfort occurs when you lie down
  • sensations are worse in the evening and at night
  • problems falling or staying asleep
  • daytime sleepiness

The cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown in most cases. There are some things that may go along with RLS:

  • family history of RLS
  • pregnancy (symptoms end after delivery)
  • low iron or anemia
  • diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis
  • eating or drinking too much caffeine

Your health care provider will depend on your descriptions of what you are feeling. He or she will ask you about your medical and family histories as well as what medicines you are taking.

You may need some medical tests (such as a physical or neurological exam) and lab tests to rule out other problems.

If you have a mild case of restless leg syndrome (RLS, you may find relief through activities such as taking a hot bath, massage, heating pad or ice pack or regular exercise. You may also find relief by reducing your caffeine intake.

If you have a severe case of RLS, there are medicines you may find helpful. Your doctor will talk with you about the different medicines and their side effects.

Reviewed By: Dr. Michael Schmitz, PsyD, LP, CBSM, Abbott Northwestern Hospital; Andrew Stiehm, MD, Allina Health clinics
First Published: 05/01/2009
Last Reviewed: 03/22/2016