What Is Restless Legs Syndrome? Key Symptoms to Look For

The feelings are worse at night and may interfere with sleep.

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It’s easy to joke that you have “restless legs syndrome” when you’re feeling antsy or fidgety. As common as this is, it’s important to remember that restless legs syndrome (or RLS) is a real diagnosis that can seriously affect quality of life.

Restless legs syndrome causes intense urges to move the legs (and sometimes other limbs). People who have RLS may also experience a crawling, tingling, creeping sensation deep in the legs—not just on the skin. It gets its name because moving the legs (such as walking, stretching, or massaging the leg muscles) provides some relief, but only temporarily. Once the legs rest again, the feelings soon return.

It’s unclear what causes RLS. One possibility is that it has something to do with the central nervous system (your brain, brain stem, and spinal cord). Another theory is that people with RLS have abnormal blood flow to their legs. It’s also more common in people with low iron levels, neuropathy, spinal cord disease, and multiple sclerosis.

How Restless Legs Syndrome Affects Quality of Life

For people who live with RLS, it is far from a joke. The intense symptoms can be distracting and frustrating. They may make it hard to focus on work or school, or to enjoy your personal life.

Most of all, restless legs syndrome tends to be worse during periods of rest—particularly at night. As a result, many people with RLS have difficulty falling and staying asleep. While they’re trying to sleep, their legs continue to have uncomfortable sensations. They may toss and turn, trying to get comfortable while their legs are tingling. They might need to get up and walk around, massage their legs, or do stretches.

For this reason, restless legs syndrome falls under the category of sleep disorders. Many people with RLS struggle with daytime fatigue that further impacts their quality of life. To make it worse, poor sleep quality can affect many parts of your physical and mental health.

Treatment Options for RLS

RLS may not threaten health directly, but it does have indirect effects due to poor sleep and stress. That’s why if you’re experiencing symptoms of restless legs syndrome, it’s important to talk to your doctor to learn about ways to manage it.

Treatment usually involves lifestyle changes. Often, people find some relief with the following habits:

  • Limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • Quitting smoking (or not starting)
  • Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day
  • Exercising regularly, especially moderate-intensity exercise
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene

Some people with RLS may benefit from medications. Doctors usually only recommend medications if you don’t find relief from lifestyle changes. Medicines to treat restless legs syndrome include:

  • Anti-seizure medicines: These may relieve symptoms for people with moderate to severe RLS.
  • Dopaminergic agents: Originally used to treat Parkinson’s, these may also help treat nighttime symptoms of RLS.
  • Iron supplements: Some people who have RLS benefit from oral or IV iron supplements.

The most important thing is to have a conversation with your doctor. They can help you find the treatment regimen for you, whether it includes medication or not.