Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): What You Should Know

March 8, 2022

4 mins

Dane O'Leary


Restless Leg Syndrome, or RLS, is a condition that's increasingly associated with chemical addiction and substance abuse. Here's everything you need to know about it...

Also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, or RLS/WED, Restless Leg Syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs. Typically, the individual feels these urges in their legs during periods of rest and/or sleep, and the symptoms are so powerful that they feel they must get up and move around. 

What Are the Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome?

RLS causes intense, irresistible urges to get up and move. These pains are usually felt in the legs but can move up through your torso and arms. The typical restless leg sensations are described as:

  • Pulling
  • Throbbing
  • Itching
  • Crawling
  • Burning
  • Creeping
  • Tugging
  • Aching

These symptoms tend to happen when the individual is laying down or has been in a seated position for a long amount of time. RLS can be especially painful during the nighttime, making it difficult to get sleep and stay asleep. This leads to many problems during the day, as insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness and extreme fatigue.

Who Suffers From RLS?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, restless leg syndrome affects about 10% of Americans. RLS is more common in women than men and can start at any age. Typically, the effects of RLS increase as the individual gets older.

What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

There are a variety of causes for restless leg syndrome, with the majority of cases being genetically related. The Cleveland Clinic reports that up to 92% of all patients with RLS have a first-degree relative with the disorder. These patients tend to notice signs and symptoms of RLS much earlier than others, usually before the age of 45. 

Additionally, there are many medical problems that are closely associated with the onset of Restless Leg Syndrome, including:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Kidney disease
  • Certain medication side effects
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Pregnancy
  • Dialysis
  • Use of alcohol or caffeine
  • Opioid withdrawal

Is Restless Leg Syndrome a Symptom of Withdrawal?

Yes. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there have been multiple epidemiological studies that prove Restless Leg Syndrome is a common side effect of opioid withdrawal. While RLS can occur in individuals who are not abusing opioids, these studies show that opioid abuse will intensify RLS symptoms during the withdrawal stage.

Why Does RLS Happen During Opioid Withdrawal?

Opioids bring dopamine, the feel-good chemical, to your brain. When an individual regularly uses opioids, the brain becomes used to high amounts of dopamine in the bloodstream. The brain and body become more sensitive to these increased dopamine levels. When the individual stops using opioids, this change is felt abruptly in the body, which triggers Restless Leg Syndrome. 

How is RLS Diagnosed?

There is no specific test for Restless Leg Syndrome, but the diagnosis is made based on your set of symptoms. To be officially diagnosed with RLS, you must have these 5 different symptoms:

  1. You often experience an urge to move your legs and it comes with the uncomfortable sensations of pulling, crawling, burning, or itching.
  2. Your symptoms begin, and/or worsen when you are resting and inactive.
  3. You experience relief when moving around, stretching, and exercising.
  4. Your symptoms are worse at nighttime.
  5. Your symptoms are not due to another medical or behavioral problem.

How Do You Treat Restless Leg Syndrome?

If you are experiencing withdrawal Restless Leg Syndrome, your treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms. There are two treatment routes you can take, holistic and medicinal. Typically the non-drug remedies are tried first.

Holistic Treatments:

  • Following good sleep habits: not reading or being on an electronic device while laying in bed, aiming to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Getting regular exercise, but avoiding heavy exercise in the hours before bedtime. 
  • Taking a bath or soaking in a hot tub.
  • Using a heating pad and/or a cold compress.
  • Taking supplements; both magnesium and iron have been shown to alleviate symptoms of RLS.
  • Try to reduce stress wherever possible. 

Prescription Treatments:

  • Medications to increase dopamine and decrease motion in your legs. Common examples include pramipexole (Mirapex), ropinirole (Requip),rotigotine (Neupro).
  • Sleep aids and muscle relaxants such as clonazepam (Klonopin), eszopiclone (Lunesta), temazepam (Restoril), zaleplon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien). 
  • Anti-seizure medications can help to block pain signals from the nerves in your legs. Some choices are gabapentin enacarbil (Horizant), gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).

If you are experiencing Restless Leg Syndrome as a side effect of opioid withdrawal, the Never Alone Recovery team is here to help. We are here to provide free placement services to alcohol rehabs in Indiana and across the United States, as well as give you the right resources on how to choose a drug rehab for your specific needs. 

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Restless Leg Syndrome infographic

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