Conditions & Treatments

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder in which a person experiences unpleasant sensations in the legs.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

What is RLS?

Restless legs syndrome is a sleep disorder in which a person experiences unpleasant sensations in the legs, which are described as:

  • Creeping

  • Crawling

  • Tingling

  • Pulling

  • Painful

These sensations usually occur in the calf area, but may be felt anywhere from the thigh to the ankle. One or both legs may be affected. For some people, the sensations are also felt in the arms. People with RLS have an irresistible urge to move the affected limb when the sensations occur. Moving often relieves the limb discomfort.

Some patients, however, have no definite sensation, except for the need to move. Sleep problems are common with RLS because of the difficulty it causes in getting to sleep. Severe daytime fatigue can be a significant problem for patients.

What causes RLS?

The cause of RLS is still unknown. Some cases are believed to be inherited, and some cases have been associated with nerve damage in the legs due to diabetes, kidney problems, or alcoholism. Iron deficiency can hasten the onset of RLS. 

As many as 10% of people in the U.S. may have RLS.

What are the symptoms of RLS?

Sensations occur when the person with RLS lies down or sits for prolonged periods of time, causing:

  • The need to move the legs for temporary relief of symptoms by:

    • Stretching or bending.

    • Rubbing the legs.

    • Tossing or turning in bed.

    • Getting up and pacing.

  • A definite worsening of the discomfort when lying down, especially when trying to fall asleep at night, or during other forms of inactivity, including just sitting.

  • A tendency to experience the most discomfort late in the day and at night.

How is RLS diagnosed?

Your health care provider can diagnose RLS based on your signs and symptoms, a complete medical history, and a physical examination. In addition, tests, such as laboratory tests including a ferritin level or a sleep study, may be performed. Currently, there is not a definitive test to diagnose restless legs syndrome.

What is the treatment for RLS?

Specific treatment for restless legs syndrome will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment options for restless legs syndrome may include:

  • Implementing a good sleep habits program

  • Eliminating activities that worsen symptoms

  • Eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco intake, which may worsen symptoms

  • Regular, moderate exercise

  • Maintaining a well-balanced diet

  • Treating underlying chronic conditions

  • Medications, including:

    • Dopaminergic agents (drugs that increase dopamine), which are largely used to treat Parkinson disease.

    • Benzodiazepines, such as clonazepam and diazepam.

    • Opioids, such as codeine, propoxyphene, or oxycodone.

    • Anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin and pregabalin.

Consult your health care provider for more information regarding the treatment of restless legs syndrome.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Imaging

  • Neuroendovascular Program
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MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Sleep Disorders Program
    Sleep problems, including problems falling asleep, staying asleep, disrupted sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness are common in children. The Sleep Disorders Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children provides comprehensive evaluation and treatment for children with disorders of sleep.
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Department of Neurology

  • Sleep Division
    The Division of Sleep Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital provides sophisticated diagnostic testing and comprehensive treatment options for people struggling with any kind of sleep problem.
Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Midlife Women's Health Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Midlife Women’s Health Center brings together experts from more than 15 specialties to improve, promote and advance health care for women at menopause and beyond through research, collaboration and education.
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine

  • Spaulding Sleep Center
    The Spaulding Sleep Center uses the latest technology to diagnose and treat sleep disorders, with a focus on patients with cardiac and/or pulmonary disease.

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