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Sleep and Restless Legs Syndrome

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 12, 2021

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder of the part of the nervous system that affects movement of the legs. Because it usually interferes with sleep, it also is considered a sleep disorder.

Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

People with restless legs syndrome have an irresistible urge to move their legs (and sometimes arms) to relieve sensations that are described as an uncomfortable, "itchy," "pins and needles," or "creepy crawly" feeling deep in the legs, typically in the calves. The sensations are usually worse at rest, especially when lying in bed, and can lead to sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression.

The severity of RLS symptoms ranges from mild to intolerable. The symptoms are generally worse in the evening and night and less severe in the morning. While the symptoms are usually quite mild in young adults, by age 50 the symptoms may cause severe nightly sleep disruption that can significantly impair a person's quality of life.

Who Gets Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome affects about 10% of the U.S. population. It affects both men and women and may begin at any age, even in infants and young children. Most people who are affected severely -- 2% to 3% -- are middle-aged or older.

RLS is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed. In many people, the condition is not diagnosed until 10-20 years after symptoms begin. Once correctly diagnosed, RLS can often be treated successfully.