Restless legs syndrome is an incurable condition characterized by discomfort in the muscles of the legs, generally leading to the uncontrollable urge to move around for relief. RLS affects up to 12 million people in the United States-but what causes this sensation of restlessness? No one is certain of the exact cause of RLS, but researchers theorize that the condition may be due to an imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine. A versatile brain chemical, dopamine sends messages to the body, which modulate muscle activity. It is theorized that RLS may run in families. In fact, almost 50 percent of people with restless legs report having a family member with the same condition. Although most people who suffer from RLS are middle-aged or older, when a child develops the condition, he or she is more likely to have a family member with restless legs. Despite a possible hereditary connection, however, most cases of RLS have no known cause. This is known as primary, or idiopathic, RLS. In secondary RLS, the other form of this disease, the symptoms are due to another, underlying medical condition, and usually disappear when that problem is treated. One of the most common causes of secondary RLS is iron-deficiency anemia, which is characterized by low levels of hemoglobin in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen and makes blood appear red. Kidney disease and kidney failure cause secondary RLS for the same reason: When the kidney fails to function properly, iron stores in the blood decrease, and restless legs can result. Damage to the nerves of the arms and the legs is known as peripheral neuropathy, and is another source of secondary RLS. Peripheral neuropathy is seen in a variety of diseases, including diabetes, HIV infection, and alcoholism. Another recognized cause of RLS is pregnancy. Up to 40 percent of pregnant women experience restless legs prior to giving birth. Certain prescription medications can actually cause RLS, including antidepressants like paroxetine, Paxil, and anticonvulsants such as Dilantin or pheyntoin. Beta-blockers like propranolol, and H2 blockers like Zantac, have also been shown to contribute to the problem. In other cases, alcohol, caffeine, or cigarette smoking can exacerbate or even cause, the symptoms of RLS. But whether RLS is idiopathic or secondary, its uncomfortable symptoms can generally be treated with both lifestyle changes and medications. Because the debilitating symptoms of this condition are treatable, it's important to see your doctor if you have concerns about restless legs syndrome!
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Last Updated:December 20, 2012