Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

I've got to move - Do I have restless leg syndrome?

3/29/2021 by Denise Dupras, M.D.


It is estimated that 5%–10% of people suffer from restless legs. But what is this condition and how do you know if you have it? 

There are four main symptoms of restless legs: 

  • An uncomfortable feeling or urge to move your legs. 
  • Symptoms are usually worse at night. 
  • Symptoms come on with rest. 
  • Symptoms go away with moving your legs. 

The condition is more common as you get older and in women. It can run in families, and can be associated with other conditions, including peripheral neuropathy, iron deficiency, kidney failure and spinal cord problems. 

The symptoms can range from mild and not bothersome to severe to the point that it interferes with day-to-day functioning and sleep. 

There isn't a test that makes the diagnosis of restless legs, but seeing a doctor is important to make sure there isn't another cause for your symptoms. Your doctor likely will perform a physical examination and order some basic tests. 

Simple lifestyle changes may alleviate some of the symptoms, including: 

  • Soak in a warm bath and massage your legs
  • Alternate the use of heat or cold packs
  • Maintain a good sleep regimen
  • Get active with moderate, regular exercise
  • Avoid caffeine

Restless legs syndrome is not a curable disease. Once the diagnosis is made, there are many options for treatment. Replacement of iron is appropriate if there is iron deficiency, even if you aren't anemic. Treatment often focuses on increasing dopamine levels in the brain with medications that are often used for patients with Parkinson's disease. The primary disadvantage is that, over time, the dose will need to be increased to be effective. Another class of medications that affect calcium channels, which includes gabapentin, are effective for some patients. Other medications, such as opioids, muscle relaxants and sleep aids, are rarely used in the treatment of restless legs. 

The bottom line is that if you feel like you just have to move your legs at the end of the day or when you are at rest and you get relief if you get up and walk around, it might be time to see your doctor and find out if you have restless legs syndrome. 

Denise Dupras, M.D., Ph.D., is a general internal medicine physician in the Division of Community Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She completed her medical and doctoral degrees at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and her residency in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.