Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs.
It can also cause an unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs. The sensation is often worse in the evening or at night. Occasionally, the arms are affected too.
Restless legs syndrome is also associated with involuntary jerking of the legs and arms, known as periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS).
Some people have the symptoms of restless legs syndrome occasionally, while others have them every day. The symptoms can vary from mild to severe. In severe cases, restless legs syndrome can be very distressing and disrupt a person’s daily activities.
Restless legs syndrome typically causes an overwhelming urge to move your legs and an uncomfortable sensation in your legs.
The sensation may also affect your arms, chest and face, too. It has been described as:
tingling, burning, itching or throbbing
a “creepy-crawly” feeling
feeling like fizzy water is inside the blood vessels in the legs
a painful, cramping sensation in the legs, particularly in the calves
These unpleasant sensations can range from mild to unbearable, and are usually worse in the evening and during the night. They can often be relieved by moving or rubbing your legs.
Some people experience symptoms occasionally, while others have them every day. You may find it difficult to sit for long periods of time – for example, on a long train journey.
Just over half of people with restless legs syndrome also experience episodes of lower back pain.
Periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS)
Up to 80% of people with restless legs syndrome also have periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS).
If you have PLMS, your leg will jerk or twitch uncontrollably, usually at night while you’re asleep. The movements are brief and repetitive, and usually occur every 10 to 60 seconds.
PLMS can be severe enough to wake up both you and your partner. The involuntary leg movements can also occur when you’re awake and resting.
What causes restless legs syndrome?
In the majority of cases, there’s no obvious cause of restless legs syndrome. This known as idiopathic or primary restless legs syndrome, and it can run in families.
Some neurologists (specialists in treating conditions that affect the nervous system) believe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with restless legs syndrome.
In some cases, restless legs syndrome is caused by an underlying health condition, such as iron deficiency anaemia or kidney failure. This is known as secondary restless legs syndrome.
There’s also a link between restless legs syndrome and pregnancy. About 1 in 5 pregnant women will experience symptoms in the last three months of their pregnancy, although it’s not clear exactly why this is. In such cases, restless legs syndrome usually disappears after the woman has given birth.
Read more about the causes of restless legs syndrome.
Treating restless legs syndrome
Mild cases of restless legs syndrome that aren’t linked to an underlying health condition may not require any treatment, other than making a few lifestyle changes, such as:
adopting good sleep habits – for example, following a regular bedtime ritual, sleeping regular hours, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine late at night
quitting smoking if you smoke
exercising regularly during the daytime
If your symptoms are more severe, you may need medication to regulate the levels of dopamine and iron in your body.
If restless legs syndrome is caused by iron deficiency anaemia, iron supplements may be all that’s needed to treat the symptoms.
Read more about treating restless legs syndrome.
Who’s affected by restless legs syndrome?
As many as 1 in 10 people are affected by restless legs syndrome at some point in their life.
Women are twice as likely to develop restless legs syndrome than men. It’s also more common in middle age, although the symptoms can develop at any age, including childhood.
The symptoms of restless legs syndrome will usually disappear if it’s possible to address an underlying cause.
However, if the cause is unknown, the symptoms can sometimes get worse with time and severely affect the person’s life. Restless legs syndrome isn’t life threatening, but severe cases can severely disrupt sleep (causing insomnia) and trigger anxiety and depression.
The charity Restless Leg Syndrome UK provides information and support for people affected by restless legs syndrome, and may be able to put you in touch with other people in your area affected by the condition.