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Night Walker: Restless Legs Syndrome

Do creepy-crawly feelings in your legs have you walking the night away? You may have restless legs syndrome.
WebMD Feature

For Walt Kowalski of Jackson, Mich., bedtime isn't the relaxing end to the day, but the beginning of another nerve-jangling night with restless legs syndrome.

Soon after lying down, unpleasant electricity-like sensations creep into Kowalski's legs. An urge to move grows and becomes irresistible. The feelings force him to kick, move, or get up and walk. The unpleasant symptoms return and often keep him walking in the night, robbing him of sleep.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an often misunderstood neurological condition. Although it affects up to 10% of Americans, RLS has its skeptics. New research, though, is bringing new understanding and treatment to this sometimes debilitating disorder.

Restless Legs Syndrome: New Kid on the Block

Until recently, most people had never heard of RLS. Even most physicians were in the dark.

Many people learned about restless legs syndrome from watching TV advertisements for medicines that treat RLS. So, is restless legs syndrome just a "made-up" disease?

"Despite the trivial-sounding name, this is a very real disorder," says Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, a nationally known expert on restless legs syndrome, who has treated hundreds of people with the condition over the past 15 years.

RLS first appeared in the medical literature in 1945. Recent publicity has raised its profile, but "restless legs syndrome has been around for centuries,", says Georgianna Bell, executive director of the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation ( Descriptions of the disorder date as far back as the late 1600s in writings by the physician Sir Thomas Willis.

While 8% to 10% of Americans have some symptoms of RLS, "about 3% of adults have restless legs syndrome that impacts their quality of life enough to seek treatment," says Bell.

Restless Legs Syndrome: Sometimes, Sneaky Symptoms

The symptoms of restless legs syndrome vary widely. Often, sufferers of RLS have difficulty describing their symptoms. Some phrases people use to explain the strange feelings in their legs are:

  • Crawling
  • Itching
  • Pulling
  • Drawing
  • Creepy-crawly
  • Electrical shock
  • Ants marching in my legs
  • Soda water in the veins

One thing all people with restless legs syndrome share: a discomfort in the legs that begins at rest and gets better with movement. Physicians diagnose restless legs syndrome when the following symptoms are present:

  • An urge to move the limbs (with or without "crawly"-type sensations)
  • Worsening at rest
  • Improvement with activity
  • Worsening in the evening or night

These symptoms of restless legs syndrome can range from "barely noticeable to almost incapacitating," according to Buchfuhrer. Some people have minor symptoms and no sleep problems. The most severely affected suffer almost constant discomfort or pain for years, if untreated.

People with restless legs syndrome typically come to the doctor complaining of insomnia or fatigue. Often, "their sleep is quite disrupted," says Buchfuhrer. The chronic fatigue caused by restless legs syndrome can create other problems:

  • Reduced concentration and memory
  • Decreased motivation and drive
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
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