The History of RLS

Ask Science looks at the history of RLS and its potential connections to other medical conditions.

Lee Falin, PhD
2-minute read

Restless Legs Syndrome first showed up in scientific literature back in 1695 when a clinical neurologist named Thomas Willis wrote:

“Wherefore to some, when being a bed, they betake themselves to sleep, presently in the Arms and Leggs [sic], Leapings and Contractions of the Tendons, and so great a Restlessness and Tossings of their Members ensue, that the diseasd are no more able to sleep, than if they were in a Place of the greatest Torture.”

In 1944 this “tossing of members” was named Restless Legs Syndrome (later abbreviated to RLS) by K. A. Ekbom. While we still don’t know everything about RLS, scientists have discovered a number of important facts about the disorder since the 17th century. 

First, RLS seems to be caused by a dysfunction in the dopamine cells of the central nervous system. Dopamine is a chemical that serves as a neurotransmitter, meaning it sends signals from your brain to other parts of the nervous system. Several other disorders are related to problems with dopamine pathways, including Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, and some forms of schizophrenia.

While we don’t know exactly what causes things to go wrong in the dopamine system of RLS sufferers, there are several genetic mutations commonly associated with RLS. One study looked at a dozen people with RLS who also had identical twins. Both twins had symptoms of RLS in 10 out of the 12 cases.

RLS can also show up as a secondary problem to other health conditions. The most common of these are iron deficiency and pregnancy. Fortunately these conditions are easily treated by iron supplements and time, respectively.

It’s also been found that deficiencies in other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and magnesium, may play a role in RLS.

Check out more about RLS on QDT's Restless Legs Syndrome homepage.

Legs image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.