Commonly described sensations

People typically describe restless legs syndrome symptoms as abnormal, unpleasant sensations in their calves, thighs or feet. Sometimes the sensations may be in the arms, often expressed as:

  • Crawling
  • Creeping
  • Pulling
  • Throbbing
  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Tugging
  • Gnawing
  • Burning

Sometimes the sensations seem to defy description. Affected people usually don't describe the condition as a muscle cramp or numbness. They do, however, consistently describe the desire to move or handle their legs.

It's common for symptoms to fluctuate in severity, and occasionally symptoms disappear for periods of time.

Commonly reported patterns

Common characteristics of RLS signs and symptoms include:

  • Onset during inactivity. The sensation typically begins after you've been lying down or sitting for an extended period of time, such as in a car, airplane or movie theater.
  • Relief by movement. The sensation of RLS lessens if you get up and move. People combat the sensation of restless legs in a number of ways — by stretching, jiggling their legs, pacing the floor, exercising or walking. This compelling desire to move is what gives restless legs syndrome its name.
  • Worsening of symptoms in the evening. Symptoms typically are less bothersome during the day and are felt primarily at night.
  • Nighttime leg twitching. RLS may be associated with another condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD causes you to involuntarily flex and extend your legs while sleeping — without being aware you're doing it. Hundreds of these twitching or kicking movements may occur throughout the night. If you have severe RLS, these involuntary kicking movements may also occur while you're awake. PLMS is common in older adults, even without RLS, and doesn't always disrupt sleep. More than 4 out of 5 people with RLS also experience PLMD.

When to see a doctor

Some people with restless legs syndrome never seek medical attention because they worry that their symptoms are too difficult to describe or won't be taken seriously. Some doctors wrongly attribute symptoms to nervousness, stress, insomnia or muscle cramps. But RLS has received more media attention and focus from the medical community in recent years, making more people aware of the condition.

If you think you may have RLS, call your doctor.

Jan. 19, 2012