About 10% of people have restless legs syndrome, also called RLS. About 2% to 3% of them have moderate to severe symptoms that affect their quality of life. Also:
- Slightly more women than men get it.
- Most people with severe RLS are middle-aged or older.
- Only 2% of children get RLS.
- People with RLS in their family usually get it at a younger age.
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
The cause of restless legs syndrome is usually unknown. Experts think that RLS may be connected to how the brain uses dopamine and iron.
Genetics also plays a role. About half of people with restless legs syndrome have a family member with it.
Many medical conditions are linked to RLS, including iron deficiency, diabetes, end-stage kidney disease, Parkinson's disease, and pregnancy. But most people with restless legs syndrome do not have one of these conditions. If you have one of these conditions, treating it can improve RLS symptoms.
Does Restless Legs Syndrome Ever Go Away by Itself?
There are some cases of restless legs syndrome disappearing on its own. But this is rare. Instead, for most people symptoms get worse over time.
For people with RLS symptoms caused by a medical condition, treatment of that condition can improve their RLS.
Can Restless Legs Syndrome Develop Into Something More Serious?
Most people with restless legs syndrome have the "idiopathic" form, meaning there's no known cause. For them, there is no risk of RLS developing into something more serious, like Parkinson's disease.
Restless legs syndrome can get worse in people with other medical conditions if they don't get those conditions treated.
How Can I Get a Good Night's Sleep Despite Restless Legs Syndrome?
Experts agree that simply changing your behavior can often help you sleep if you have restless legs syndrome. For people with mild to moderate RLS, these steps can reduce or prevent symptoms:
- Cut down on caffeine.
- Cut down on alcohol.
- Stop smoking, or at least cut back.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, including weekends.
- Exercise regularly, but moderately (heavy exercise can worsen symptoms).
- Apply heat or ice, or soak in a hot bath.
When Should I See a Doctor About Restless Legs Syndrome?
You should see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis of RLS and to exclude other conditions that may resemble RLS. The doctor can treat associated problems like iron deficiency.
If you have RLS, you should also see a doctor if you are:
- Losing sleep often
- Feeling depressed or anxious
- Having trouble concentrating
Are There Treatments for Restless Legs Syndrome?
There are four FDA-approved drugs for restless legs syndrome: Horizant, Mirapex, Neupro, and Requip.
Doctors also use other drugs not specifically made to treat RLS. These include:
- Anti-seizure medicines, such as gabapentin
- Opiate pain medicines, such as hydrocodone, propoxyphene, and tramadol
- "Sedative-hypnotics," such as clonazepam and zolpidem
What Else Can I Do to Cope With Restless Legs Syndrome?
Depression and anxiety commonly result from restless legs syndrome. If you have moderate to severe RLS, it's important to find ways to cope with the stress it can cause. Here are a few ways to take control:
- Work with your doctor. A different drug or combinations of drugs are often necessary to control symptoms.
- Join a support group.
- If you feel overwhelmed by RLS, talk with someone who treats mental health, like a psychologist or psychiatrist.
What Is the Connection Between Iron and Restless Legs Syndrome?
Not enough iron in the diet is one cause of restless legs syndrome. Taking iron pills may improve RLS in these people.
Even in people who are not anemic and have normal iron levels, iron levels may be involved. Studies show a "brain iron deficiency" in many people with restless legs syndrome. A doctor may prescribe iron supplements even if a person's iron levels are within normal range. However, too much iron can lead to liver damage and other health problems.
What Is the Link Between Restless Legs Syndrome and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder?
More than 80% of people with restless legs syndrome also have periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD. In PLMD, the arms or legs twitch or jerk during the night. The movements disturb sleep and can cause chronic sleepiness.
Many people have periodic limb movement disorder by itself and will never develop restless legs syndrome. If you think you have PLMD, see your doctor.