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Restless Legs Syndrome

People with restless legs syndrome, also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, experience throbbing, pulling, tingling, crawling, or other uncomfortable sensations in the legs, and a strong urge to move their legs when sitting still or lying down. Moving the legs may provide only temporary relief.

These unpleasant sensations occur primarily at night, and may make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. These symptoms often follow a 24-hour pattern that includes a few symptom-free hours in early morning.

A neurological disorder, restless legs syndrome may cause fatigue, along with difficulty concentrating and completing daily tasks. It also may cause depression. An estimated 1 in 10 people in the United States has restless legs syndrome. It occurs in people of all ages, although it is more common in middle-aged and older adults. It affects women twice as often as men.

People sometimes attribute restless legs syndrome symptoms to stress, muscle cramps, arthritis, or aging. Assuming that little can be done to relieve their distress, many do not seek medical help. Because restless legs syndrome received relatively little medical attention until recent years, even physicians still may not know about and recognize the disorder. Effective treatment is available.

The majority of people with restless legs syndrome also experience a disorder known as periodic limb movement of sleep. In this disorder, involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements occur roughly every 15 to 40 seconds in sleep. These movements may continue throughout the sleep period, causing sleepers to awaken frequently. The awakenings may be so brief, however, that they go unremembered in the morning. People with periodic limb movements usually know that they slept poorly. 

Treatment for restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movements of sleep

Some people with restless legs syndrome have iron or vitamin deficiencies; correcting these problems may reduce symptoms. Some benefit from regular exercise. Taking a warm bath, or using a heating pad or ice pack may ease symptoms for a little while.

Medications called dopaminergic agents, designed to treat movement disorders, may help relieve symptoms, while prescription hypnotic medications may prevent or reduce difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.