Although its name may sound lighthearted, restless leg syndrome (RLS) can be a troubling disorder. Symptoms include itching, burning, or aching in the legs, particularly when you’re at rest, and an overwhelming desire to move your legs. RLS can lead to severe sleep disturbances.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 5 to 15 percent of Americans with RLS have a family member who also has it. There’s no specific test for RLS. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, a physical exam, and elimination of other potential conditions.
RLS is not just an adult condition — children get it, too. The Restless Leg Foundation (RLF) reports that approximately 1.5 million children and teens in the United States have RLS. When symptoms appear in childhood, there’s often a familial link. A parent has a 50/50 chance of passing the RLS trait on to their children, according to RLF.
Symptoms in children are the same as in adults. These symptoms can lead to sleeping difficulties that can easily be misinterpreted as a behavioral problem.
Pregnant women can develop RLS. Symptoms usually start in the third trimester. The reason pregnant women are particularly susceptible to RLS isn’t clear, but it may be related to:
- hormonal fluctuations
- mineral deficiencies
- an imbalance in the neurotransmitter dopamine
The good news is that in most pregnancy-related cases of RLS, symptoms disappear within days or weeks of the baby being born.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, research indicates that a lack of iron may trigger RLS. Our brains require iron to help produce dopamine, a chemical that helps the brain control movement. Some conditions can affect how our bodies use iron, including:
Pregnancy may also cause an iron deficiency, a type of anemia.
Some medications can trigger RLS, including ones that prevent nausea and dizziness. Cold and allergy medications containing antihistamines, calcium channel blockers, and antidepressants and antipsychotics can also cause RLS. In most cases, symptoms go away when you stop taking the medication. Be sure to speak to your doctor before you stop taking any medications.
Other substances, like tobacco and alcohol, can cause RLS or intensify symptoms. Try to avoid them to better manage the condition.
Sometimes RLS is a symptom of another medical condition. This is called secondary RLS. For example, nerve damage to the legs can cause RLS and is the result of an injury. Other diseases associated with RLS include:
- end-stage renal disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- Parkinson’s disease
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Anyone can develop RLS, but it’s diagnosed more frequently in women than in men. Although people with a family history of RLS tend to get it early on, risk generally increases with age. Most people are diagnosed in midlife. People with Northern European ancestry are more likely to develop it than people of any other race or ethnicity.
If you have symptoms of RLS that won’t go away, make an appointment to see your doctor. Be prepared to give a complete medical history. Your doctor will want to check for underlying conditions. List all of your over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements.
Unless the cause is pregnancy, medication, or a diagnosed medical condition, your doctor may not be able to pinpoint the cause of your RLS. But there are medications and other remedies that can help ease your symptoms so you can get a good night’s sleep.