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Restless Legs Syndrome Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Ali M Bozorg, MD; Chief Editor: Selim R Benbadis, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 15, 2016

History and Physical Examination

The diagnosis of restless legs syndrome (RLS) is based primarily on the patient’s clinical history. Often, patients do not bring RLS symptoms to the attention of the physician; accordingly, it can be helpful to include a few general sleep questions in the review of systems. RLS patients typically report dysesthetic sensations variously described as “pins and needles,” an “internal itch,” or a “creeping or crawling” sensation.

Approximately 85% of patients with RLS have periodic movements of sleep, usually involving the legs (periodic leg movements of sleep [PLMS]).[2] PLMS are characterized by involuntary, forceful dorsiflexion of the foot lasting 0.5-5 seconds and occurring every 20-40 seconds throughout sleep.

A large majority of patients (85%) with RLS report difficulty falling asleep at night as a consequence of the condition, and they may experience excessive daytime somnolence because of poor sleep quality resulting from multiple PLMS-induced arousals. PLMS noted on polysomnography (PSG) alone do not warrant treatment. Clinicians should consider treating PLMS if they are causing frequent arousals.

Other features commonly associated with RLS but not required for diagnosis include sleep disturbances, daytime fatigue, and involuntary, repetitive, periodic, jerking limb movements (either while the patient is asleep or while he or she is awake and at rest). A positive family history also aids in the diagnosis of RLS, especially in children.

RLS can be difficult to diagnose in children, especially younger ones.[21] For a definite diagnosis, patients must endorse the diagnostic criteria and be able to describe leg symptoms in their own language.[22] Alternatively, they must have the diagnostic criteria plus sleep disturbances, a sibling or parent with RLS, and a PLMS index higher than 5 on PSG.[21] For a possible diagnosis, a PLMS index higher than 5 on PSG and a first-degree family member with RLS are required. These strict criteria are intended to prevent overdiagnosis of RLS in children.

The physical examination is usually normal in patients with RLS; it is performed to identify secondary causes and to exclude other disorders. In particular, the patient should be evaluated for neuropathy, radiculopathy, and parkinsonism.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Ali M Bozorg, MD Assistant Professor, Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, University of South Florida College of Medicine

Ali M Bozorg, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Epilepsy Society, American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Disclosure: Received honoraria from Cyberonics for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from UCB, Inc. for speaking and teaching.

Chief Editor

Selim R Benbadis, MD Professor, Director of Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Tampa General Hospital, University of South Florida College of Medicine

Selim R Benbadis, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Medical Association, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Clinical Neurophysiology Society, American Epilepsy Society

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: Cyberonics; Eisai; Lundbeck; Sunovion; UCB; Upsher-Smith<br/>Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Cyberonics; Eisai; Glaxo Smith Kline; Lundbeck; Sunovion; UCB<br/>Received research grant from: Cyberonics; Lundbeck; Sepracor; Sunovion; UCB; Upsher-Smith.


Jose E Cavazos, MD, PhD, FAAN Associate Professor with Tenure, Departments of Neurology, Pharmacology, and Physiology, Program Director of the Clinical Neurophysiology Fellowship, University of Texas School of Medicine at San Antonio; Co-Director, South Texas Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, University Hospital System; Director of the San Antonio Veterans Affairs Epilepsy Center of Excellence and Neurodiagnostic Centers, Audie L Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Jose E Cavazos, MD, PhD, FAAN is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Clinical Neurophysiology Society, American Epilepsy Society, and American Neurological Association

Disclosure: GXC Global, Inc. Intellectual property rights Medical Director - company is to develop a seizure detecting device. No conflict with any of the Medscape Reference articles that I wrote or edited.

William G Irr, MD Consulting Staff, Department of Neurology Service, St Luke's Episcopal Hospital of Houston

William G Irr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology.

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Juan Latorre, MD Research Fellow, Department of Physical Medicine and Spinal Cord Injury Medicine, The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research

Juan Latorre, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Erasmo A Passaro, MD, FAAN Director, Comprehensive Epilepsy Program/Clinical Neurophysiology Lab, Bayfront Medical Center, Florida Center for Neurology

Erasmo A Passaro, MD, FAAN is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Clinical Neurophysiology Society, American Epilepsy Society, American Medical Association, and American Society of Neuroimaging

Disclosure: Glaxo Smith Kline Honoraria Speaking and teaching; UCB Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Pfizer Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Forest Honoraria Speaking and teaching

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Reference Salary Employment

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