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Restless legs syndrome
First Published March 2007
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a common, but often overlooked
disorder that affects movement and sleep.
In 1685, King Charles II’s renowned doctor, Dr Thomas Willis, wrote about RLS as “leapings and contractures” of the tendons – adding that sufferers could no more sleep than if they were being tortured.
In 1945, Swedish
neurologist Karl-Axel Ekbom described the condition, calling
it restless legs. It was later called Ekbom’s syndrome after the
author of this key paper.
One of the patients who Ekbom described was a soldier who kicked
so violently in his sleep that other soldiers in the same tent
had to put up planks to protect themselves.
The number of people
suffering from RLS severe enough to make them likely to seek
medical advice is around 3% of the adult population. The
majority of sufferers are women and the prevalence of the
condition increases with age.
Although the exact cause of RLS is unknown, growing numbers of studies show that people with RLS have a problem related to dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain which, amongst other things, affects movement.
naturally go down in the evening, which may help to explain why
RLS symptoms are worse in the evening and at night. Another
cause of RLS is a lack of iron, which is essential to make
This occurs naturally
and can begin at any age. It can start in early adult life as a
mild problem, but may slowly progress to daily symptoms with
badly disturbed sleep, usually after the age of 50.
This occurs as a complication of another condition, for example:
Diagnosis of RLS
If you think you
might have RLS, ask yourself do you have any or all of the
Symptoms of RLS may be eased by following simple sleep advice aimed at promoting sleep at night and wakefulness during the day.
The sensations caused by RLS can sometimes be eased by stimulating the affected areas. A change in temperature (e.g. by taking a warm or a cool bath), rubbing affected limbs, walking, stretching or using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can relieve symptoms in some patients.
There are now
licensed medicines for the treatment of primary RLS. Your doctor
can advise you on managing RLS and whether treatment is