Living With Restless Legs Syndrome

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

Most people have the occasional restless night. However, restless legs syndrome (RLS) is something different. People with RLS feel unpleasant sensations in the legs, often late in the day as they begin to wind down. These sensations are described as aching, throbbing, pulling, tingling, or the irresistible urge to move the legs. Some people’s legs twitch, jerk, or feel painful. These symptoms can make it hard to get to sleep.1,2

Left untreated, RLS can cause physical and mental health problems related to lack of sleep. Poor sleep may also lead to poor performance at school or work. However, there are many everyday tips and techniques to help you live better with RLS.

Sleep habits that help RLS

If you have RLS, your doctor will probably talk to you about your sleep habits. This is also called sleep hygiene. Modern living tends to undermine good sleep habits, so even simple changes can make a big difference in how well you sleep. Common suggestions include:1,3,4

  • Setting aside enough time to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same times 7 days a week
  • Turning off electronic devices at least half an hour before bedtime
  • Making the bedroom comfortable and cool

There are many other daily habits you can use to improve restless legs syndrome. These are just a few.

Learn your triggers

One of the best ways to reduce your RLS symptoms is to avoid your personal triggers. However, to avoid those triggers you have to know what those are. Some people find RLS gets worse when they do not get enough sleep or are under stress. Others find that certain foods such as caffeine, sugar, or monosodium glutamate (MSG), or drugs for allergies or depression trigger symptoms. Keeping a sleep diary can help you learn your triggers.5

Diet changes for RLS

What you eat and drink can help reduce RLS symptoms. For instance, people with RLS may need extra iron, magnesium, vitamin D, B9, or B12 in their diet. Others may need to cut out sugar, dairy, caffeine, or alcohol.5-8

Exercise and relaxation

If you have RLS, working some exercise into each day can help you sleep better at night. Even a daily walk of 10 to 30 minutes, taken a few hours before bedtime, can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Many find that walking around the house or gentle stretches help calm the pulling, aching feelings of RLS at bedtime. It can take 1-2 months of daily, or near-daily, exercise to see benefits.1,5

Many people find that certain relaxation techniques help manage their RLS symptoms, including:5,6

  • A warm bath or shower before bedtime
  • Leg massage
  • Hot or cold compresses

Others find that mental activities distract them from the symptoms, which can help. Examples include crossword puzzles, listening to music, or video games.

School, work, and RLS

Sometimes the jittery legs caused by sitting still for long periods can be accommodated. Schools and workplaces may allow you to stand quietly at the edge of a room rather than sitting during meetings or classes. Sitting for school or work travel can also be challenging for people with RLS, but coping skills can be learned.6,7

Mental health and RLS

Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are common among people with restless legs syndrome. Plus, fatigue, poor mood, and problems concentrating are common in people with RLS because they do not get enough sleep. Some drugs can help treat RLS and depression and anxiety at the same time. However, some antidepressants can make RLS symptoms worse.5

Smoking and RLS

Smoking and vaping can interfere with sleep because nicotine is a stimulant. If you have RLS, your doctor may recommend that you stop smoking as one of many lifestyle changes to improve sleep.1,9

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