What Are the Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome?

Unpleasant Sensations May Worsen at Night, Disrupt Sleep

A woman fights through the discomfort of restless legs symptoms
A woman fights through the discomfort of her restless legs symptoms. Getty Images

There are characteristic symptoms of restless legs syndrome (RLS) that help identify and diagnose the condition. What are the symptoms of restless legs? How might children describe these sensations? When do the feelings of restless legs commonly occur? How can restless legs affect your sleep and cause insomnia? Discover the most common ways that RLS can manifest.

Understanding Restless Legs Symptoms

To answer these questions, let’s review an excerpt from UpToDate -- a trusted electronic medical reference used by health care providers and patients alike.

Then, read on for additional information about what all of this means for you.

"People who have RLS get an uncomfortable feeling in their legs when they are at rest. They describe this feeling as crawling, creeping, pulling, or itching. And they say the feeling is deep in the legs -- not on the skin -- usually below the knees. These symptoms usually get worse as the day moves on, and they are worst at night. But people can make the feeling go away temporarily if they kick or move their legs. Some people with RLS find that their legs move on their own while they are asleep.

"In short, the symptoms:

  • -Happen when you are at rest
  • -Go away if you move your legs on purpose
  • -Are worst at night
  • -Sometimes include the legs moving on their own during sleep

"Together, the symptoms of RLS can make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. People with the condition often feel tired during the day."

The feelings described above are commonly reported by those who are affected by restless legs syndrome.

This condition is also called Willis-Ekbom disease, named after the doctors who first described it. Various words have been used to describe the symptoms and many people struggle to find the right descriptors. Children in particular may not have the words to describe the symptoms adequately. Some of the words used to describe the symptoms of restless legs, with children's words towards the bottom of the list, include:

  • Restless
  • Uncomfortable
  • Twitchy
  • Need to stretch
  • Urge to move
  • Legs want to move on their own
  • Painful
  • Numb
  • Cold
  • Need to move
  • Have to move
  • Got to move
  • Bugs
  • Ants
  • Weird feelings
  • Funny feelings
  • Tingle
  • Wiggly
  • Shaky
  • Legs want to kick

No matter the words that are used, the underlying sentiment is the same: an unpleasant, disagreeable sensation that occurs in the legs. It is often felt deep in the muscles, not superficially in the skin.

The Timing of Restless Legs Symptoms Matter

One of the important elements to RLS symptoms is that they seem to have a circadian rhythm. In other words, they occur at a certain time of the day (often in the evening hours or early in the night). They may be brought on by lying down to rest on the couch or they may be worsened when you first get into bed.

Some people will report restless legs symptoms when sitting for a prolonged period earlier in the day, such as while on an airplane flight or while sitting in a long meeting or at the theater. Moreover, as the condition progresses, the symptoms may become more severe and start to occur earlier in the day.


Movement Provides Relief of RLS Discomfort

Another key element is the role that movement has in both relieving the symptoms as well as triggering other problems (such as disrupted sleep). The unpleasant restlessness is relieved by moving the legs, walking around, stretching, or even rubbing the legs. Movements will often occur, sometimes almost subconsciously, in an attempt to relieve the unpleasant symptoms. These can become part of a condition called periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS) that may disrupt your ability to get a good night’s rest.

Treatments for Restless Legs Can Help

Fortunately, there are many effective treatments for the management of restless legs syndrome. If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, you should speak with your doctor about the diagnosis as well as your treatment options.

Want to learn more? See UpToDate for additional in-depth medical information.


American Academy of Sleep Medicine. International class-action of sleep disorders, 3rd ed. Darien, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2014.

"Restless legs syndrome." UpToDate. Accessed: December 2011.

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