What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?

Last updated: September 13th, 2023

What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep-related movement disorder characterized by an uncontrollable need to move the legs. Symptoms of RLS often become worse near bedtime, making it difficult for those who suffer from it to get a good night's rest.

Although research has identified several factors associated with RLS, the exact cause of RLS is still unknown. There are theories that suggest a mixture of genetics, lifestyle habits, and medical issues can play a role in causing RLS. The following sections explore some of the potential causes of RLS.


There is strong evidence that genes can play a major role in the development of RLS. According to a 2017 study conducted in the United States, up to 66% of people with RLS have a family member who suffers from the condition. Those who do not have any family history of RLS but still display symptoms may have a genetic mutation that is not yet understood.


Studies have suggested that RLS is related to neurochemical changes in the body. People with RLS may have insufficient dopamine levels in the brain, which 咖 indicated by elevated levels of homovannilic acid (HVA) in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Low levels of iron, or ferritin, has also been associated with an increased risk of RLS.

Lifestyle Habits

The lifestyle habits of a person can contribute to the development of RLS. Certain lifestyle choices—such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and drug use—have been linked to increased risk of developing RLS symptoms. Research has also suggested that the onset of RLS can be triggered by factors such as poor nutrition, stress, insomnia, and being overweight. Those who have poor sleep hygiene may be at higher risk.

Medical Causes

There are certain medical conditions which can increase the risk of developing RLS. Some neurologically-based conditions have been linked to RLS, including Parkinson's disease, peripheral neuropathy, and multiple sclerosis. Other chronic medical conditions, such as kidney diseases, diabetes, and anemia, may cause or worsen RLS symptoms.


Although medications can help treat RLS symptoms, some medications have been known to worsen them. Medications including antipsychotics, antiemetics, antinausea drugs, some antidepressants, and some cold and allergy medications can induce or worsen RLS symptoms.


Although the exact cause of RLS is not understood, research has identified genetic, neurochemical, lifestyle, and medical factors that can contribute to the development or worsening of RLS symptoms. It is important to talk to a healthcare provider if you are suffering from RLS symptoms, as they can provide advice on treatments and lifestyle modifications to reduce the discomfort.

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