Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Originally Published: April 6, 2007 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 18, 2014
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Dear Alice,

Have you ever heard of Restless Legs Syndrome? Can you tell me more about it?

Thanks.

Dear Reader,

Restless legs syndrome (RLS and also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease) is a disorder that's characterized by annoying and sometimes painful sensations in the legs that are brought about by sitting or lying down. These sensations can include creeping, crawling, tingling, burning, tugging, or aching in the calves, thighs, and/or feet. Getting up and moving around is usually the only way to find some relief. Also, because the symptoms typically occur at night, the disorder can interfere with falling and staying asleep, leading to exhaustion and daytime drowsiness.

Some researchers estimate that as many as ten percent of American adults have RLS; others say these numbers are low because RLS is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed. Its symptoms are usually most severe in middle-aged or older people, although they can appear at any age, including infancy.

The cause of RLS is not known. However, about half of people with RLS have a family history. If you think you might have RLS, it might be a good idea to ask family members if they experience similar symptoms. RLS has also been linked with conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia and chronic diseases, including diabetes, kidney failure, Parkinson's disease, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, and neural damage. Some pregnant women experience RLS, but the symptoms tend to fade within a month of giving birth.

Researchers have found that caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco can trigger or aggravate RLS symptoms in people who are predisposed to have the disorder. Certain medications (e.g., some anti-nausea medications, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and some cold and allergy medications) may also make symptoms worse. You can speak with your health care provider about changing medications if you're taking any of these drugs and you have symptoms of RLS.

There is no cure for RLS, but many of its symptoms can be relieved with proper treatments. Treating the underlying condition can be a huge help. Otherwise, treatments can involve lifestyle changes and/or medication(s). If you're a student at Columbia and you're concerned that you might have RLS, you can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). For those not at Columbia, look for a sleep disorder center or clinic near you. The Willis-Ekbom Disease Foundation (formally known as the RLS Foundation) website provides more information and a list of health care providers who have knowledge in the treatment of RLS.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) has stirred up all kinds of health and sleep related questions, but fortunately, that has led to the advancement of research on RLS and available treatments.

Alice