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Restless legs syndrome

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Restless legs syndrome is where you get an irresistible urge to move the legs that is difficult to overcome. It can affect women twice as commonly as men but can affect any person at any age although it tends to be more common the older you are. It is surprisingly common with some estimates suggesting that up to 5% of the population can be affected at some time.

What are the causes of restless legs syndrome?

When there is no obvious cause, which is the case with the majority of cases of restless leg syndrome, it is known as primary or idiopathic restless legs syndrome and this type of RLS can run in families.

Secondary restless legs syndrome is where there is an underlying condition that seems to be causing the condition, such as iron deficiency anaemia, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, or kidney disease. It can also be a side effect of certain medications (such as antidepressants, beta blockers and antipsychotics) and it is also a common symptom during pregnancy, affecting around 20-25% of pregnancies in the final trimester (29 - 40 weeks). The symptoms often get better shortly after delivery. 

What are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome is a very unpleasant condition in which you get an irresistible urge to move your legs, and it can also create an unpleasant feeling of something crawling or irritating your lower legs. It is difficult to stop or settle and the symptoms are often worse at night or when lying down. Symptoms typically come and go and affect both legs, being temporarily eased when standing or moving the legs around.

It is easy to understand how these symptoms can be really distressing for individuals as they feel there is nothing you can do to stop them from happening or to make them go away. Occasionally, it can be related to a condition known as 'periodic limb movement disorder' during sleep, which is sudden uncontrollable jerking of the legs or arms.

How long does restless legs syndrome last?

Restless legs syndrome is commonly a lifelong condition. There is no cure, although there are various management techniques and therapies that are used to try and reduce the symptoms and disturbance to daily function.

What are the treatment options?

Primary restless syndrome that cannot be attributed to any underlying medical condition can be difficult to treat although milder cases can ease significantly by exercising regularly to improve blood flow, quitting smoking which can narrow blood vessels, cutting down on caffeine and making sure you are generally well-rested and hydrated. 

With secondary restless legs syndrome, it is best to treat the condition causing the RLS first to see if it helps to resolve the symptoms. On occasion, medication that increases the effect of dopamine can be used to increase the levels of this in the body since restless legs syndrome can be associated with low dopamine levels. However, as with any medication, there can be side effects, and long-term use of this drug can actually sometimes cause the symptoms to worsen.  Discuss possible treatments with your doctor if you have RLS symptoms that do not seem to be getting better.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023