Is Your Insomnia Caused by Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?

Find out what Restless Leg Syndrome is, how it can interfere with good sleep, and tips to treat it.

Sanaz Majd, MD,
March 1, 2012
Episode #089

Imagine you’ve had a particularly tough day at work. You come home and just can’t wait to get into your cozy, comfy bed to catch some Z’s. You finally snuggle under your new down duvet cover, place your head on your soft feathery pillow, and close your eyes…only to find that your legs have a mind of their own. You simply cannot stop moving them for some reason. You just know it’s going to be one of those nights – no matter how tired you are, it’s going to be impossible to get a wink of sleep.

If this sounds familiar, then you may have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Some patients are not aware that it’s an actual medical condition, and others may not realize that their insomnia is really due to RLS. It’s not a topic that gets a lot of media attention – probably because RLS won’t kill you. But nonetheless, it is quite a nuisance. Sleep deprivation is a big deal because sleep is crucial to our overall daily functioning. Those who don’t sleep well perform suboptimally at their jobs, in school, and even in their interpersonal relationships. 

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What Are the Symptoms of RLS?

For those who don’t have RLS it may be difficult to understand the symptoms, but believe me, they’re quite real. For those of you who do have it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Even though it’s often difficult to describe RLS, those who suffer from it describe their symptoms as:

  • An urge to move or kick the legs or feet

  • A creepy-crawly or strange sensation in the legs that’s felt deep inside, not on the skin

  • The sensation occurs only at rest

  • Relieved by movement temporarily

  • Worse at nighttime, especially bedtime

  • Usually felt in both legs equally

These symptoms often interfere with a good night’s rest, and some patients say they have daytime fatigue as a result.

What Causes RLS?

RLS tends to run in families. Ask your parents or siblings if they too have the same symptoms, you may be surprised by their answer and they may be relieved to know that it’s an actual medical condition.

We don’t know why exactly, but there are also several health conditions that predispose some people to RLS, such as:

  • Diabetes

  • Pregnancy

  • Neurologic disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease

  • Iron-deficiency anemia

  • Kidney disease

Therefore, it’s important to see your doctor who may do a blood test to make sure it’s not any of these conditions that may be causing your symptoms.

Unfortunately, for most people with RLS, the cause is really unknown.

How Is RLS Treated?

  • Treat the Other Conditions: First of all, it’s important to treat any underlying causes of RLS if you are diagnosed with any of the previously mentioned health conditions associated with it. Sometimes it’s as easy as taking a daily iron supplement if a special lab test called “ferritin” is low.

  • Stretching: Do some calf stretching exercises for five minutes prior to bedtime. Make sure you really feel it in the back of your lower legs when stretching.

  • Avoid Triggers: Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine are some common triggers of RLS in those who are already predisposed. Also, certain antidepressants, anti-seizure, and antihistamine medications can also worsen RLS symptoms. But please don’t stop any medications before first discussing it with your doctor.

  • Prescription Medications: If you still have RLS that doesn’t go away, and your symptoms are severe enough to cause a decrease in functioning or quality of life, then it may be time to discuss a prescription treatment. Several mediations have been used to treat RLS, such as pramipexole, and ropinirole, which are first line, and levodopa/carbidopa as a second possibility. However, these medications are not without risks or side effects.

Remember, RLS doesn’t necessarily need to be treated, unless it’s interfering with good sleep or your quality of life.

RLS Resources




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Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Legs iand insomnia images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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