Restless Leg Syndrome Fact Sheet

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RLS treatment at UK HealthCare

The Movement Disorders Clinic specializes in the evaluation and treatment of disorders of gait, coordination and other aspects of movement, including restless leg syndrome.

What is RLS?

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by uncomfortable sensations in the lower extremities and an urge to move in order to relieve these feelings. RLS sensations are described as tingling, prickling, pulling, burning and aching. Moving the lower extremities usually relieves RLS sensations, at least for a short time.

RLS sensations start or become worse when an individual is at rest and most occur when sufferers are trying to sleep. As a result, RLS sufferers often have trouble falling or staying asleep. This can lead to severe sleep deprivation. Many people with RLS report their job, personal relations and daily activities are negatively affected by their lack of sleep.


There are two types of RLS: primary and secondary. Primary RLS, also referred to as idiopathic and familial RLS, is the most common type of the disorder and can be hereditary. Research into the cause of primary RLS is ongoing and a single cause has not been identified.

The causes of secondary, or symptomatic, RLS are generally underlying medical conditions or the use of certain medications. Conditions that may cause secondary RLS include kidney failure, low levels of iron, anemia, folate deficiency, uremia, thyroid problems, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, pregnancy and peripheral neuropathy. Environmental factors, such as stress and diet, may also play a role in the development of secondary RLS.


RLS is characterized by a combination of uncomfortable sensations in the lower extremities, especially when sitting or lying down, and an irresistible urge to move. These sensations usually occur deep inside the leg between the knee and ankle on both sides of the body. More rarely, symptoms can occur on one side of the body or in the feet, arms and other parts of the body.

RLS sensations start or become worse when an individual is at rest and most occur at night when sufferers are trying to sleep. Symptoms are reduced by voluntary movement of the affected extremities. Relief can be complete or partial and generally starts immediately or soon after the onset of activity.

RLS symptoms vary in severity and duration from person to person. Symptoms may begin at any stage of life, although the disorder is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged individuals and the most severe cases tend to occur in people who are middle-aged or older. In general, symptoms become more severe over time.

Diagnosing RLS

There is no specific diagnostic test for RLS. During a thorough medical assessment, health care professionals look for four indicators to determine whether an individual has the neurological disorder:

  • A strong desire to move the limbs, accompanied by uncomfortable sensations.
  • Symptoms begin or worsen when at rest
  • Symptoms are partially or completely relieved by movement. Relief persists as long as movement continues.
  • Symptoms are worse in the evening, especially when resting, and are absent or minor in the morning.

Health care professionals may also check iron, or ferritin, levels. In some cases, individuals are asked to complete overnight sleep studies to determine the causes of sleep disturbance.

Care and treatment

There is no cure for RLS, but there are several ways in which individuals can relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. The chief complaint among individuals with RLS is the inability to sleep. Unfortunately, fatigue can make RLS even worse.

Many people are able to control symptoms and get much-needed rest by making a few lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise and eliminating the use of tobacco and consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Medications are usually helpful, but no single drug effectively controls RLS for all individuals. Trials of different medications may be necessary. Certain medications, such as antinausea or antiseizure medications, may cause RLS sensations to worsen. With secondary RLS, symptoms may be eliminated by treating the underlying condition.

Because everyone experiences RLS differently, it is important that each individual speak to a health care professional about how to control symptoms.

To find out more

UK HealthCare Movement Disorders Clinic

Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation  

National Sleep Foundation

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Page last updated: 8/7/2015 3:26:36 PM