If you’ve ever felt the almost impossible-to-ignore urge to move your legs, you may be suffering from a chronic condition known as restless leg syndrome, or RLS. It can make it difficult to sleep at night – or even just sit still!
Many people think it’s an imaginary condition. “It must be a psychological thing!” someone might say to you. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a lot of information about it. Plus, there’s no easy way to diagnose it.
You’re likely not getting the best sleep if you’re dealing with RLS. It turns out that RLS can affect your sleep because it tends to affect people more prominently at night. So, what is RLS? Symptoms can vary, as well as the severity of symptoms. And RLS is more than just a sleep disorder.
We put together a guide so you can learn as much as possible about the disorder, how to keep symptoms at bay without medication, and how to talk to your doctor so you can get the right diagnosis.
1. What is RLS?
Most people who have RLS also have trouble sleeping, and it’s no wonder – RLS is classified as a sleep disorder. That’s not all it is, though. It’s also a nervous system disorder. Symptoms of RLS can be different for those who suffer from it. Restless leg syndrome usually causes a weird sensation in legs that can be uncomfortable.
The disorder usually affects one’s legs, but sometimes the symptoms can be felt in the arms, too. If you know someone who is affected by RLS, you might notice they move their legs constantly, whether it’s bobbing their legs up and down, or they pace. The movement can sometimes relieve the sensations they feel.
2. Symptoms of RLS
The most common symptom is that urge to move your legs. It’s insatiable. The sensations can be so strong that you may have trouble falling and staying asleep.
Other symptoms include the almost instant relief you feel if you get up and move. Typically, people who suffer from RLS report the sensations are worse at night.
If you’re unsure as to whether you have RLS, you may wonder what does restless leg syndrome feel like, anyway? The most common feeling people ascribe RLS to is a pins and needle feeling – that same feeling you get when you sleep on your arm and it “falls asleep.”
Others describe the sensation a bit like a mild electric shock. Have you ever pulled a plug out of a socket and accidentally shocked yourself? Imagine that buzzing sensation, but relentless and all throughout your legs.
Some people who have this condition have also reported that RLS feels like their legs are constantly itchy, aching, or burning. It’s difficult to explain to someone how it feels unless they’ve experienced it.
It’s rare for anyone to associate RLS with the phrase “vibrating leg syndrome,” but it’s possible. More commonly, VLS is now associated with phantom vibration syndrome, or that feeling as if your phone is buzzing in your pocket, but it didn’t ring or isn’t there at all.
3. The Cause of RLS
One of the biggest pitfalls of RLS is that for all the scientific and medical strides we’ve made forward as a society, RLS has no known cure. If you’ve recently been diagnosed, you may be asking, “Why do I have restless leg syndrome?”
Usually, there is no known cause of RLS. So, what causes restless leg syndrome in adults isn’t exclusive to them – children and teens can also suffer from RLS. What doctors do know is that restless leg syndrome is often accompanied by one or more other conditions, disorders, or factors:
- Iron deficiency
- Anti -nausea, -psychotic, -depressant, and -histamine drugs
- Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine use
- Nerve damage
- Renal disease
It has also been shown that RLS could be genetic. About 10 percent of Americans suffer from RLS, and there’s a greater chance of you could develop the disorder if you have family members with it. Restless leg syndrome is most indiscriminate – it can affect people of any ethnic group, any age, and both genders. However, it’s more common in Northern Europeans, those older than 40, and women.
There is a form of RLS that’s temporary and only affects women.
4. Pregnancy and RLS
It seems an odd combination, but many women who are pregnant may also experience the symptoms of RLS. Generally, the disorder seems to pop up in the third trimester for many women. Pregnancy and RLS go together like pickles and chocolate – wait, that might be appetizing for a pregnant woman. But you get the point!
You’re already having enough trouble getting to sleep what with all of the other things that come with pregnancy – especially in your last trimester. There’s a seemingly constant need to use the restroom, heartburn, leg cramps, and even insomnia. And now RLS is making you pace, regardless of how late it is.
The cause is still pretty much unknown, but experts say that the RLS symptoms typically subside a few days or so after a woman gives birth.
5. When Night Falls, RLS Gets Worse
Usually RLS rears its ugly head late in the evening, although some people deal with RLS around the clock. So, what causes restless leg syndrome at night? No one really knows, only that it tends to be worse in the late hours.
It would be a bit easier to live with it if you could deal with it during the day, right? Regardless of how exhausted you are, though, that creepy, crawling, pins-and-needles sensation can be strong enough to launch you out of your comfortable bed to pace that feeling away.
There are a few things you can to ease the discomfort of RLS, and you should start with evaluating your lifestyle. That is, after you get a proper diagnosis from your doctor.
6. The Effect of Time
If you’re wondering what causes RLS to get worse, there’s no one answer. There’s really only one way RLS worsens that you can’t control, and that’s time. Typically, as those who suffer from the disorder get older, the symptoms or severity of symptoms get worse. However, you can combat some of the other triggers of RLS.
The ways you can reduce the progress of the condition starts with your lifestyle. Keep a sleep diary. You should record the time you woke up in the morning and what time you went to sleep that night. Write down how many times you wake up at night, and how many hours of sleep you got each night.
You should also note how often you experienced the RLS symptoms, the times you experienced them, and the severity of the symptoms. Stress and anxiety can be major factors in triggering RLS, so mark in your diary what stressed you out each day.
7. How to Stop Restless Leg Syndrome
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to cure your restless leg syndrome, but it doesn’t stop you from asking how you can stop restless leg syndrome. The good news is that you have options.
Moderate exercise can do wonders for your symptoms. Cardio is always a good idea, and it helps with heart health, too. But one of the best things you can do for your RLS is yoga, swimming, or stretching.
Sometimes a hot bath is all you need to relax and the heat from the water can help relieve the pain you experience from RLS. Even better would be a soak in a whirlpool tub, as massage from water jets can also help alleviate some symptoms before bed.
If the heat isn’t doing it for you, try putting those dancing legs on ice. A couple of ice packs can help relieve the sensations you’re feeling, at least temporary. Then you might be able to get some much-needed rest.
If your doctor has noted that you have an iron deficiency and approves the use of a dietary supplement, that could make a big difference for you. It’s important to talk to your doctor before you take supplements – especially if you take medications. Some supplements can negatively react with other meds. Magnesium has also been linked with improving RLS symptoms, but there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove it yet.
Your doctor could prescribe a medication to help treat your RLS, and two of the most common are Requip and Mirapex. Some meds prescribed are controversial because they’re potentially habit-forming, like Klonopin.
8. Sleep Better
If you’re wondering how to sleep with restless leg syndrome because it seems near impossible, there is hope. In addition to the lifestyle changes you can make, such as regular exercise and taking hot baths, you can do more to make bed comfortable again.
Try to go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time. A regular sleep schedule– even on the weekends – can promote your body’s natural sleep rhythms. This means your body and brain get the hint that it’s time for sleep.
That may not be enough, though, so you can try slipping a pillow between your legs. This can help support the nerves in your legs and prevent compression. You may experience fewer RLS flare ups.
Another possible solution is to switch out your old mattress for a memory foam or natural latex mattress, which can help relieve pressure points. It could work in the same way that a pillow between the legs can. Another benefit is that your partner won’t be as easily disturbed when you have to get out of bed to pace – although this is far from the biggest concern, obviously.
To reduce the heaviness in legs at night, you can try switching your blanket. A weighted blanket is surprisingly effective at helping to calm your restless legs. It’s a comforting feeling – a bit like a constant hug or massage for your legs.
You may want to read: Are Blankets Good for Restless Legs?
9. Treatments to Try for Twitching Legs
Restless leg syndrome is an awful disorder to live with. Although your significant other may not fully understand just how terrible it is, I guarantee that they are affected. First, they don’t want to see you suffer. Second, it’s probably difficult for them to sleep, too. Don’t feel bad about that! Instead, try a home remedy that has some science to back it up: sex.
A recently published study in a sleep journal reported that a good orgasm can help calm your restless legs. The possible reason it could reduce the twitching legs of RLS is because an orgasm and sexual excitement triggers the release of dopamine and epinephrine. So, do yourself and your partner a favor! No partner? A little self-love is good for your health.
10. What is Relaxis?If you’re at your wit’s end and you don’t want to treat your RLS with medication, your doctor can prescribe a device that’s supposed to help alleviate pain and other sensations. The product is called Relaxis. It’s a pad that delivers vibrations to your legs, which sort of counter the stimulation of an RLS episode.
When you lay down to sleep, you position it under your legs, and it gives you the relief you would get when you walk around and move your legs. For the first 30 minutes, Relaxis vibrates along your legs and then slows and stops as you fall asleep. It’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and totally drug-free. You’ll still need a prescription for it.
11. For Mild Symptoms
Occasional bouts of RLS can be managed with the lifestyle changes already outlined here. If you’re still experiencing twinges, jerks, and creepy-crawly sensations, though, you may want to use an over-the-counter medication.
A massage can do wonders to relieve that pins-and-needles feeling just before bed. Use a bit of lotion and massage each of your legs from knee to ankle. If you have a willing partner, get them to do it while you relax and slip into a restful sleep. You can also seek out a professional massage therapist to get some deep massages every once in a while.
If you’d prefer to just pop a pill to take care of your rare nights of symptoms, you can take an over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen.
12. A Home Remedy That Works?
Anyone who has been suffering from RLS has probably done research late at night when they can’t sleep. What else are you going to do as you’re pacing at night, anyway? So, you’ve probably come across user forums where people sing the praises of soap. Yup – soap.
If you believe those who say they’ve lived with RLS for decades and that this home remedy worked for them, it’s worth a try, right? Take a bar of soap and place it near your legs. You can place the soap under your sheets or on top of your sheets, and then settle in for sleep.
Science has not been able to explain why a bar of soap could alleviate leg cramps, restlessness, or other symptoms of restless leg syndrome, but it’s acknowledged in studies. Could it be a placebo effect? Possibly. Although, many people who swear by it have said they snuck bars in under the sheets without their partners who suffer from the disorder knowing, and it still worked. It’s worth it, anyway as a treatment to try at night for aching legs.
13. Meditation for RLS
To get that tingly sensation in your legs or arms to subside, you may need to just relax. Those who are suffering from restless leg syndrome are often misdiagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or depression, and it makes sense. Many of the symptoms are similar, even though RLS isn’t really a psychological disorder.
You already know that yoga can help, but it’s about more than just stretching your limbs to make you more limber. Centering yourself through meditation can be helpful to alleviate stress and anxiety, which are major triggers for RLS. Additionally, yoga and meditation can aid in better sleep, which is one of the big goals for RLS sufferers.
14. What to Avoid
To get the best help for RLS, it’s important to avoid certain triggers. You’re already aware of what you should do (exercise, stretch, massage, relax), but what shouldn’t you do?
If you use alcohol, drugs, nicotine, or caffeine. it’s worth omitting one at a time and keeping track of how your legs feel afterward. Just try it for a week to see if it helps, and if it doesn’t, try avoiding another one of the other vices.
Although it’s important to exercise, you need to make sure you don’t overdo it – and try to make sure your activities happen well before bedtime. Similarly, you need to avoid changing your activity the other direction. If you regularly walk a couple miles every day, don’t suddenly stop. Either working out too much or too little can aggravate your symptoms.
Sometimes it’s necessary to take medication for allergies or other maladies, but you want to avoid the older formulas that include dopamine receptor blockers. For example, Benadryl and some anti-nausea drugs can block dopamine and increase the odds of an RLS episode.
If you take anti-depressants that make your RLS symptoms worse, you’ll need to talk to your doctor. There may be some non-drug options, like Relaxis, that you can get a prescription for to help counteract the effects of your medication. Alternatively, your doctor may find another anti-depressant that won’t exacerbate your RLS.
15. Foods That Can Help
Doctors believe that there’s a link between iron deficiency and RLS, so it stands to reason that foods high in iron could help stave off the itchy, aching, numbing, tugging feeling that comes with every RLS episode. So, you could try improving your diet with iron-rich foods:
- Spinach, kale, collard greens
- Red meat, poultry, chicken
- Dried fruit
To ensure your body absorbs the iron it needs, you should also make sure you get enough vitamin C, which comes from foods, such as:
- Citrus fruits
Additionally, doctors have discovered a connection between patients who suffer from RLS and a lack in folate, which is a B vitamin. It helps your body’s cells divide to produce new cells. Foods that are naturally high in this nutrient:
- Brussels sprouts
The common denominator here that you may notice is that all of these foods combined equals a healthy, well-balanced diet. That’s often the key to better overall health, anyway. So, you should see an improvement in other ailments, and you may feel better in many different ways.
16. All That Magnesium Talk
Can a single mineral really help with a neurological condition that just doesn’t seem to want to quit? Some doctors say yes. There’s an obvious link between those with RLS who are also lacking in magnesium.
Although there isn’t much scientific evidence to show that magnesium is actually changing anything for RLS patients, but like the soap trick, it’s worth a try. The suggested daily value of magnesium is 400mg, and it’s unlikely you’re getting that much. If you work certain foods into your diet that are rich with this nutrient, you may notice a difference. Plus, many of these foods are also high in folate, another needed nutrient to help combat RLS.
Try adding these foods:
- Nuts and seeds
- Spinach, kale, collard greens
Even if you don’t notice a difference in your RLS symptoms, you’ll likely find that you have more energy, but your anxiety is lessened; you’ll have fewer leg cramps and you aren’t likely to struggle with constipation.
If you’re suffering from restless leg syndrome, you may be suffering unnecessarily. Even if your legs rarely force you to hop out of bed and pace in the middle of the night, it’s not worth living with. There are several remedies you can try to reduce your symptoms.
Try changing your lifestyle and habits a bit, and keep a sleep diary to see if that helps. Buy an extra bar of soap when you’re at the store next. And by all means, talk to your doctor about your symptoms to get a diagnosis and a plan to manage your symptoms.
Hopefully this guide has helped you learn more about RLS and how to handle your symptoms, whether they’re infrequent or constant. If it helped, please let us know in a comment below, and share it with your friends – and let us know what remedies work for you!
You may want to read: Sleep Tips and Bedding Guide for a Heavier Body