DD Medical Matters: What causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

written by Scally McDaid Roarty October 26, 2018

Continuing his popular Medical Matters column Dr Ciarán Roarty of Scally McDaid Roarty Medical Practice looks at the intriguing condition of Restless Leg Syndrome.

This is a strange one! It is very hard to describe to someone who doesn’t have it. Basically its an urge to move your legs (and therefore a restless feeling) due to an uncomfortable or unpleasant sensation. It affects about 3 in 100 adults so it is quite common.

Some people describe a crawling or electric sensation. Others describe a sensation like a dripping tap on their legs or an itchy fidgety sensation. Occasionally it feels quite painful but the end result for all is the urge to move your leg.

It usually occurs at rest, for example in bed, and is usually worse at night. For obvious reasons, sleep can be interrupted or difficult and it can lead to tiredness and irritability.

Walking, moving or massage tends to relieve symptoms but unfortunately, they often come back quickly.  Sometimes people describe sudden jerky movements and these may wake your sleeping partner.


Most of the time we don’t know what causes it. It is thought to be related to a chemical imbalance in our brain.

It can also occur in pregnancy or be a  side effect of some medication. Low iron can cause it or it may be a part of another condition such as Diabetes, kidney problems or thyroid underactivity.

What tests are needed?

When the doctor takes a  thorough history of your condition they will usually be able to make the diagnosis. They may do some blood tests to rule out some of the causes mentioned above.


If a cause such as iron deficiency is found then this is treated. Medication adjustments may be required if it is thought to be a side effect of one of your tablets.

However, most people have no underlying cause identified and the decision whether to treat or not is based on how mild or severe the symptoms are. Simple measures include distraction if symptoms are mild eg reading or tv.

Sleep hygiene is important. This refers to getting to bed at a regular hour and getting up at the same time with no daytime napping. 

Eliminating caffeine drinks and relaxing before bed or even stopping caffeine and alcohol altogether may help reduce symptoms. Regular exercise also helps Restless Leg Syndrome,  as it does many medical conditions.   

Is there a tablet Doctor?

Iron supplements may help if your levels are just above normal. Your doctor will help you keep your levels right as too much can also cause problems. 

There are also tablets which affect the levels of certain chemicals in your brain which are prescribed. These tablets work well but may have initial side effects such as nausea or tiredness.

Thankfully they often settle.  However, their main drawback is that after a while they may stop working. Other medications are sometimes tried and while these don’t tend to stop working, like all drugs they can cause side effects.  Your doctor will help you choose what is best for you.

Will it get any better Doctor?

There is no easy answer to this question. For some, things get gradually worse and this can contribute to poor sleep, low mood or anxiety. For others, the symptoms never really change, while some people find they develop long periods without any symptoms. 

There is no cure but usually, some medication will help address the effect that Restless Leg Syndrome has on your quality of life.

The above information is intended as advice only and should you have any concerns please contact your own Doctor.

Dr Ciarán Roarty MB, BCh BAO MICGP DRCOG Grad. Cert. Obst. Ultrasound is a full-time GP at Scally McDaid Roarty Medical Practice, Scally Place, Letterkenny, Tel 0749164111



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