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Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a disease of the nervous system that can make it harder for you to sit still, especially at night or when you are trying to relax or sleep. If you have RLS, then sitting still may cause unpleasant sensations in your legs or arms, ranging from a mild creeping or crawling feeling to a growing or burning pain, until you get up and move. RLS can disrupt your life and make it hard for you to sleep.
RLS affects 7% to 10% of the U.S. population. 2% to 3% live with severe RLS.
The exact cause of RLS is unknown, although it tends to run in families. About half of the people with RLS have a family member with the disorder. A family link is even more common for people who develop RLS before age 40.
Scientists believe RLS may be caused by a problem with a part of our brain called the basal ganglia circuits. Normally, these circuits use a neurotransmitter known as dopamine to send the signals that tell your body to move. In RLS, the basal ganglia circuits may use dopamine the wrong way, making it hard for you to sit still.
While doctors don’t know exactly what causes RLS, they have identified factors that can raise your risk. These include:
There is no test for RLS A diagnosis of RLS is based on these four criteria:
Your doctor also needs to check for other illnesses that may be the cause of your symptoms.
At your doctor’s visit, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, including when they happen and whether anything triggers symptoms. Your doctor may also ask about your sleep patterns and your family history.. The visit will also include a physical and neurological evaluation. Your doctor may request tests, such as:
Diagnosing RLS can be harder in children, who may not have the vocabulary to describe their symptoms. RLS in kids is sometimes confused for attention deficit disorder or “growing pains.”
The main symptom of RLS is an unpleasant feeling in your arms or legs when you sit still. Different people have described this feeling in different ways, and it can be a mild discomfort such as feeling pulled, or it can be an intense painful or burning feeling. This unpleasant feeling goes away when you move the limb, but it may come back again when you rest. The symptoms are often worse at night and when you are sitting or lying down. Very often, people with RLS have another disorder known as periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), which can cause your legs to move or twitch in your sleep without your knowledge.
Because RLS can disrupt your life and your sleep patterns, some people with RLS may suffer from:
There is no cure for RLS. Unless it starts during pregnancy or is caused by a curable medical condition, RLS is usually a lifelong problem, and symptoms tend to get worse over time. However, RLS doesn’t lead to other neurological disorders, and it probably won’t affect your life expectancy.
RLS can be disruptive, and it can get in the way of your life. It may affect your sleep, throw off your concentration, or make it hard for you to travel. However, the choices you make in your life can make it easier to cope with RLS. Some things you can do to ease the burden include:
There is no guideline for routine RLS screening, but doctors have developed questionnaires to help recognize the symptoms. If you think you may have RLS, you can ask your doctor for a screening test, or you can take an online screening test at http://www.willis-ekbom.org/wed-rls-diagnostic-tool
No questionnaire can take the place of a thorough exam by a doctor, but if you’re not sure then screening may be a good place to start.
There is no sure way to prevent RLS, but there are some risk factors you can avoid. While it’s not proven that any of these changes will lower your risk, things you can do include:
Treatment for RLS often starts with proper nutrition and lifestyle measures. To help manage RLS, your doctor may ask you to:
For many people, lifestyle changes can improve overall health and help get RLS symptoms under control. However, some people still have symptoms after lifestyle changes. If you need medical treatment for RLS, the options include:
Talk to your doctor about the best approach to treatment for your RLS.
RLS management includes many techniques that are often thought of as alternative medicine. This includes dietary supplements such as:
Treatment also includes:
Other home remedies that may help some people include:
Always talk to your doctor about any treatments you plan to use, including herbal and alternative medicines. Some herbal treatments may cause side effects or interact with other medicines you take.
Adjustments to your lifestyle are central to RLS treatment for many people. The primary changes you will need to make may include:
Other self-care techniques can also help. For instance:
If you have trouble sitting still, or you think you have RLS, speak with a doctor. Some people are afraid to seek help, out of concern that they might look foolish or have a hard time explaining their symptoms. And RLS is sometimes misdiagnosed. But awareness of this condition has been increasing among physicians and the public.
If you’re not sure whether you should speak with a doctor, you can take an online screening test.
But remember that no screening test can take the place of an examination by your doctor.
If you need specialized treatment for RLS, your primary care doctor can refer you to a specialist or you can use the Willis-Ekbom Disease Foundation’s directory of doctors who treat RLS. You can find this directory here.
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
Other useful resources to help you learn about RLS and take charge of your treatment can be found at:
Willis-Ekbom Disease Foundation
National Sleep Foundation
Article about resources for RLS
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