How Common Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs. Twitching, jerking, and the irresistible urge to move the legs also happens. These feelings most often occur in the late afternoon or evening when a person is sitting or resting. However, some people feel these symptoms during the day when sitting still for long periods.1-2

Who gets restless legs syndrome?

RLS is also called Willis-Ekbom disease. It is one of the most common sleep disorders. Studies estimate that between 5 and 15 percent of U.S. adults and 2 to 4 percent of children have restless legs syndrome. Women are more likely to have RLS than men.1

RLS may begin at any age, but most people are over age 40. RLS is more common in North American and European countries than in Asian countries. RLS seems to get worse as people age in Europe and North America but not in Asia. When RLS begins after age 45 it tends to get worse quickly.2-4

Between 40 and 90 percent of people with restless legs syndrome have at least 1 close relative with it. This genetic change is autosomal dominant in some families, meaning you only have to inherit one copy of the gene to get RLS. People whose RLS runs in the family usually have symptoms before age 40 and it gets worse slowly.2,4

Between 50 and 60 percent of people with RLS report symptoms at least 1 time per week. Only 1 in 5 people (20 percent) with RLS experience symptoms daily or almost daily. When moderate to severe RLS is left untreated, it can lead to a 20 percent drop in work productivity.3-4

Are there different types of restless legs syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome may be primary or secondary. Primary means the cause is unknown. Secondary means that the RLS is the result of another condition such as anemia, pregnancy, or end-stage kidney disease.1

Other conditions linked to RLS

More than 8 out of 10 people with restless legs syndrome also have periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). Generally, RLS occurs when the person is awake and cannot be seen by others. PLMD occurs during sleep and can be seen by bed partners or during a sleep lab test.4

With PLMD, the person’s legs, and sometimes arms, move, twitch, or jerk during sleep. These movements happen every 15 to 40 seconds, sometimes all night. While most people with RLS also have PLMD, most people with PLMD do not have restless legs syndrome.4

Between 50 to 85 percent of people with RLS also have insomnia, which puts them at higher risk for depression and anxiety.1

People who are at higher risk of developing RLS include those with:2-5

  • End-stage kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Spinal cord injuries

About 1 in 4 pregnant women develop RLS, most often in the third trimester. It often disappears after birth.4-6

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