Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), also called Willis-Ekbom disease (WED), is a chronic neurological disorder characterised by an irresistible urge to move the legs, which interferes with rest and sleep. This can be accompanied by unpleasant sensations including pain, burning and pins and needles. These symptoms tend to occur most during quiet wakefulness, for example when watching television or when drifting off to sleep, or during sleep. Despite the name, RLS can also affect the arms, head, and other parts of the body. Moving the affected part of the body can temporarily stop/improve the unpleasant sensations associated with RLS and provide temporary relief. In addition, involuntary movements of the legs (known as periodic limb movements) are frequently present.
RLS is a fairly common neurological disorder, occurring in 10% of adults, but it manifests itself clearly in only a minority of cases. It can occur at any age but tends to be more frequent with increasing age and women are affected twice as often as men. The exact cause, however, remains unclear. It is thought to arise from abnormalities in the dopamine and iron systems in the central nervous system, including the basal ganglia and spinal cord. Additionally, alterations in the central nervous system are thought to affect biological processes relating to our 24-hour cycle (the circadian rhythm) and the way various neurotransmitters work. There seems to be a genetic link, as suggested by the high frequency of positive family history of RLS in people affected by this disease. RLS also appears to be strongly linked with an iron deficiency in the body and other medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, renal failure, neuropathy (numbness or weakness as a result of damaged nerve endings) and pregnancy.
One of the main consequences of RLS is sleep disruption and insomnia. At best, sleep disruption can lead to daytime tiredness and possible irritability. At worst, it can lead to anxiety and depression, although more research is needed into this. RLS may also affect your sleeping partner if you experience periodic limb movement (PLM). For this reason, many people with this condition find it easier to sleep alone.
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How is Restless Legs Syndrome diagnosed?
There are no objective tests for the diagnosis of RLS, which is based entirely on the description of symptoms.
A diagnosis of RLS is made if a person displays all five primary clinical features set out in 1995 and amended in 2014 by the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group (IRLSSG):
- An urge to move the legs usually accompanied by uncomfortable and unpleasant sensations in the legs.
- The urge to move the legs and any accompanying unpleasant sensations begin or worsen during periods of rest or inactivity such as lying down or sitting
- The urge to move the legs and any accompanying unpleasant sensations are partially or totally relieved by movement, such as walking or stretching, at least as long as the activity continues.
- The urge to move the legs and any accompanying unpleasant sensations during rest or inactivity only occur or are worse in the evening/night than during the day.
- The above clinical features are caused by other medical conditions or behaviours (e.g. myalgia, venous stasis, leg oedema, arthritis, leg cramps, positional discomfort, habitual foot tapping).
In addition, other features that may suggest a diagnosis of RLS are:
- periodic limb movements when asleep
- improvement of symptoms on dopaminergic treatment
- a family history of RLS.
If RLS is diagnosed, your doctor should also check that you are not taking drugs which make RLS worse (such as certain antidepressants, anti-allergy drugs or alcohol at night). You may also be referred for a neurological examination to see whether damage of the nerves in the legs is causing the urge to move and uncomfortable sensations.
If a diagnosis is still uncertain, or your symptoms do not respond to treatment, then you may be asked to stay overnight in a sleep laboratory so that you can be observed further and tests can be carried out during your sleep.
Parkinson's and Restless Legs Syndrome
It is difficult to confirm exactly how Parkinson’s can affect RLS or vice versa. RLS is a condition in its own right, occurring in people both with and without Parkinson’s – although it is thought to be almost twice as likely to occur in people with Parkinson’s.
RLS can also be difficult to diagnose in Parkinson's as it may come and go and can be confused with other symptoms of the condition such as akathisia (a restlessness which does not worsen in the evening or at night) or internal tremor. RLS can also cause night-time pain which may be mistaken for articular issues (experienced as deep joint pain) in people with Parkinson's.
What treatment is available?
RLS is a condition that is treatable and generally susceptible to pharmacologic therapy. A wide range of different treatment options is available, including drugs that modulate certain calcium-channels, dopaminergic agents, opioids, and benzodiazepines. However, the medical condition most commonly associated with RLS is iron deficiency so your doctor should first check your ferritin levels (a protein that binds iron in the blood). If levels are low you will be given an iron supplement. For some people increasing the ferritin levels will eliminate or reduce the RLS symptoms.
Some Parkinson's medications can make RLS worse and should be avoided. For example, some people who take levodopa complain that RLS symptoms occur during the day, as well as evenings, and may also involve the arms and the face. These symptoms typically worsen late in the night as the medication wears off. It is therefore often preferable to use dopamine agonists such as pramipexole or ropinirole tablets, or rotigotine skin patches instead of levodopa when treating Parkinson’s and RLS.
If you are already taking dopamine agonists to manage Parkinson's symptoms and you still experience RLS symptoms, then your doctor may suggest you try other medications, such as gabapentin, pregabalin, opioids or clonazepam, although these may or may not be licenced to treat RLS in your country.
How can I help myself? Non-pharmacological treatment
There are many ways you can help yourself – but it does depend on how disruptive the symptoms are and what changes you are willing to make.
First, review your lifestyle and see what changes you can make to reduce or eliminate RLS symptoms. Suggestions include:
- Establish the right level of exercise - too much worsens it, too little may trigger RLS. Some people find that a few minutes of exercise just before bedtime is particularly effective, although others find that exercise in the evening worsens the symptoms.
- Avoid stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol and smoking, particularly in the evening.
- Eliminate from your diet foods that trigger RLS – these may include sugar, triglycerides (a form of dietary fat found in meats, dairy produce and cooking oils), gluten, sugar substitutes (aspartame), or following a low-fat diet. Experiment to see what works for you – but before significantly changing your diet, always check with your doctor or a dietician first.
- Create a peaceful, cool sleeping environment.
- Discuss with your doctor adding supplements such as potassium, magnesium, B-12, folate, vitamin E, and calcium to your diet. Whilst it has not been clinically proven, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest these supplements can ease RLS symptoms.
To relieve the symptoms, you could try:
- stretching and massaging the legs
- applying a hot – or cold – compress to the muscles in the leg
- taking a warm bath before going to bed
- drinking more water. Dehydration may cause the urge to move the legs, so some people find drinking a glass of water stops the urges for a short while
- soaking your feet in hot water just prior to going to sleep
- wearing compression stockings or tights in bed
- placing a pillow between your knees or thighs when lying in bed
- massage and chiropractic spinal manipulation
- distracting your mind – read a book or switch on the TV.
These are simply suggestions and what works for some people, won’t for others. If you have any concerns talk to your doctor or healthcare professional first.
Sources used in compiling this content:
- Wijemanne S, Ondo W. Restless Legs Syndrome: clinical features, diagnosis and a practical approach to management. Pract Neurol. 2017 Dec;17(6):444-452.
- Winkelman JW, Armstrong MJ, Allen RP, Chaudhuri KR, Ondo W, Trenkwalder C, Zee PC, Gronseth GS, Gloss D, Zesiewicz T. Practice guideline summary: Treatment of restless legs syndrome in adults: Report of the Guideline Development, Dissemination, and Implementation Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2016 Dec 13;87(24):2585-2593.
Content last reviewed: July 2020
We would like to thank Prof K. Ray Chaudhuri DSc FRCP MD (King’s College London and King’s College Hospital, London, UK) for his help in reviewing this information.
Our thanks to Parkinson’s UK for permission to use the following source:
- Restless Legs and Parkinson’s.