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What is restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a common condition of the nervous system that causes an uncomfortable and irresistible urge to move the legs. It can also cause unpleasant crawling sensations in the thighs, calves and feet. Moving the legs can bring temporary relief, but the symptoms eventually come back.

The sensations tend to get worse with rest and towards the end of the day, and can lead to difficulty sleeping at night. Around 9 out of 10 people with restless legs syndrome also suffer from sudden jerky movements when they are asleep, known as ‘periodic limb movements of sleep’.

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Who gets restless leg syndrome and what causes it?

Restless legs syndrome can develop at any age and affects around 2-5% of adults worldwide. Women are affected twice as much as men, and it becomes more common in older age. In most cases, there is no clear cause for restless legs syndrome; this is called primary or idiopathic restless legs syndrome.

Research shows that there may be a genetic link (meaning it can be inherited), especially when RLS runs in families and affects people before the age of 40 years.

It is thought that restless legs syndrome is related to problems in part of the brain controlling movement, called the basal ganglia. The brain cells in this area communicate with each other using a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) called dopamine. An imbalance in the levels of dopamine is thought to cause the symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

Certain medical conditions or medications can lead to the development of restless legs syndrome. These include:

  • Iron deficiency anaemia, which results from low levels of iron in the blood. It can be treated with iron tablets that can resolve the symptoms
  • Severe kidney disease from poorly functioning kidneys – this is also a cause of low blood iron levels and therefore restless legs syndrome
  • Pregnancy-related restless legs syndrome, which affects about 1 in 5 women, usually in the last three months of their pregnancy
  • Parkinson’s disease, which is a condition caused by damage to brain cells that use dopamine to communicate with one another. It can cause restless legs syndrome as well as other symptoms such as tremors, rigidity and slow movement
  • Medications such as anti-sickness medications, antidepressants and antipsychotics - these can all cause restless legs syndrome as a recognised side effect.

Are any tests needed to diagnose restless legs syndrome?

Our expert specialists at The London Clinic Centre for Movement Disorders are on hand to offer their expertise in the management of restless legs syndrome.

They will ask questions about the symptoms, any related medical conditions, or if there is any family history. There are no specific tests for restless legs syndrome, so the diagnosis is based on clinical information.

A careful physical assessment will also be performed by a member of our specialist team. Blood tests can identify conditions such as iron deficiency anaemia or kidney disease, which will help with the treatment plan.

What are the common treatments for restless legs syndrome?

If the restless legs syndrome is caused by an underlying medical condition, then treatment will focus on treating that effectively. If a medication is thought to be the cause, then the specialist will discuss whether stopping it or reducing the dose might be able to help. 

For primary restless legs syndrome, there is no cure. However, lifestyle changes and medications can help control troublesome symptoms:

Lifestyle changes

These include avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, cutting down on alcohol, quitting smoking, regular exercise, practising good sleep hygiene, massaging and stretching the legs.

Medications

Medications can be used for short periods of time if symptoms are not controlled by lifestyle measures. Iron supplements, dopamine replacements, painkillers and muscle relaxants can all help. However, if medications are used for long periods of time, they will begin to lose their effect.

In fact, the long-term use of dopamine replacement can sometimes make the symptoms worse. Medications may also cause side effects of their own and should only be taken under the supervision and advice of a specialist doctor.

Why choose The London Clinic?

At The London Clinic, we strive to deliver quality, patient-centred care at the cutting edge of innovation. We offer access to expert specialists in the field of movement disorders, the very best facilities and clinical support teams that are second to none.

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