Ten Questions About Restless Legs Syndrome
The cause of restless legs syndrome is usually unknown. Leading experts suspect that in people with restless legs syndrome, also called RLS, the brain takes up or uses iron abnormally.
Genetics also plays a key role. About half of those with restless legs syndrome have affected family members, too.
Many medical conditions are associated with RLS, including iron deficiency, diabetes, end-stage kidney disease, Parkinson's disease, and even pregnancy. These cases account for a minority of people with restless legs syndrome, however. Treating these conditions, if present, can improve restless legs syndrome symptoms.
Who Gets Restless Legs Syndrome?
No one knows the exact number of people with restless legs syndrome. About 10% of the population is affected, and about 2% to 3% have moderate to severe symptoms that affect their quality of life. We do know that:
- Women are affected slightly more often than men
- Most people with severe disease are middle-aged or older
- RLS does not occur in children
- Those with affected family members usually get restless legs syndrome at a younger age, but it progresses more slowly
Does Restless Legs Syndrome Ever Go Away by Itself?
There are reported cases of restless legs syndrome disappearing on its own. However, according to Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, a sleep specialist and national expert in restless legs syndrome, "these are very rare." Instead, he says, "for most people, this is a progressive disease, with symptoms getting gradually worse over time."
For those with RLS symptoms caused by a medical condition, treatment of that condition can relieve or improve their restless legs syndrome.
Can Restless Legs Syndrome Develop Into Something More Serious?
Most people with restless legs syndrome have the "idiopathic" form -- meaning there's no known cause. For them, says Buchfuhrer, "there is no risk of progression to more serious conditions, such as Parkinson's disease."
Restless legs syndrome can also be caused by medical conditions or diseases (such as iron deficiency, diabetes, or kidney disease). If untreated, these medical conditions can cause serious health problems, as well as worsen RLS.
How Can I Get a Good Night's Sleep Despite Restless Legs Syndrome?
Experts agree that simply changing behavior can often help you sleep if you have restless legs syndrome. For those with mild to moderate RLS, these steps could reduce or prevent symptoms:
- Reduce caffeine intake
- Cut down on alcohol
- Stop smoking, or at least cut back
- Maintain a regular sleep pattern
- Exercise regularly, but moderately (heavy exercise can worsen symptoms)
- Apply heat or ice, or soak in a hot bath