BACKGROUND: Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a common neurological condition. We investigated the prevalence of RLS in patients suffering from unpleasant sensations in the legs. METHODS: We included 16,543 patients consulting one of 312 primary care practices in Germany on November 8, 2007. All patients filled out a self-assessment questionnaire. Patients who reported suffering from unpleasant sensations in the legs were then assessed by the physician. Main outcome measures were the overall prevalence of unpleasant sensations in the legs and the prevalence of RLS; the most common differential diagnoses in the subpopulation suffered from unpleasant leg sensations. RESULTS: Out of all participating patients 7704 (46.6%) suffered from unpleasant sensations in the legs and 1758 (10.6%) were diagnosed with RLS according to the four essential clinical criteria. Among patients with unpleasant leg sensations, the prevalence of RLS was considerably higher (22.7%) than in the total population. The most common differential diagnoses were osteoarthritis (21.5%), disc lesion (19.2%), varicose veins (18.8%) and muscle cramps (14.6%). Of the patients with RLS 53.4% had already consulted their physician about their leg problems in the past. Still, only 20.1% of the RLS patients had received the correct diagnosis. Comorbidity rates were significantly increased in RLS patients compared to patients suffering from leg symptoms of other origin. CONCLUSIONS: This study showed a high prevalence of RLS in primary care patients with unpleasant sensations in the legs. Thus, in patients presenting with these symptoms the diagnosis of RLS should routinely be considered. Copyright © 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.