Harvard Men's Health Watch

Restless legs syndrome

Although high-powered executives may deny it, sleep is actually a highly productive part of life. It may not show up on the corporate balance sheet, but it is essential to rest the mind, allowing it to function efficiently and creatively during the day. And sleep is just as important for the body, giving muscles and joints time to recover from an active day and regroup for another go at the world. But for at least 12 million Americans, it doesn't work that way. When they settle down for a good night's sleep, their repose is shattered by an irresistible urge to move their legs. The result is a miserable night of fragmented sleep, daytime sleepiness, personality changes, and often a grumpy spouse. The problem is restless legs syndrome (RLS).

A matter of record

The first modern account of RLS dates to 1945, when a Swedish physician, Dr. K. A. Ekbom, recognized the problem and named it. But an English physician, Sir Thomas Willis, actually beat him to the punch by 273 years when he wrote, "To some, when being a bed they betake themselves to sleep, presently in the... Leggs Leapings and Contractions... and so great a Restlessness and Tossing of their Members ensue, that the diseased are no more able to sleep than if they were in a place of the greatest Torture." The symptoms have not changed since 1672, but treatment can now put an end to the torture.


Leg discomfort is the first symptom of RLS. It's usually described not as pain but as a tingling, pricking, bubbling, tearing, or burning sensation like "ants crawling up my legs" or "soda pop in my veins." Most often, the discomfort is centered deep inside the calves, but it can also occur in the thighs or feet. In most cases, both legs are equally affected, but touching the skin or pressing on the muscles does not increase the discomfort; in fact, some patients report temporary relief from massaging their restless legs. In severe RLS, symptoms can also develop in the arms.

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