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Keeping Busy to Relieve RLS Symptoms

Last updated: December 2022

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder. It is a neurological condition that can occur at any time of the day but is most common when the body is at rest, so nights often feel like the hardest time.

There are quite a large number of sleep disorders, but RLS is the one I’m most familiar with, because it impacts me every day of my life.

Even sedentary activities can be made active, except for sleep

The trouble with living in a body that is endlessly restless is that you need something to do. During the day it isn’t so bad — even in my primarily sedentary desk job, I still have to stand up and walk around regularly, which eases those restless sensations.

At night my husband and I usually enjoy a few (often quite a few) hours of relaxing television before going to bed. Television-watching is generally considered a still activity, but for me, it’s an exercise routine. Twitch this leg, then that leg. Roll around and stretch a little. Go for a wander. Come back. Repeat.

But going to bed? Going to bed is the trickiest part of all. I am fortunate to have medications that allow me to sleep. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t have this luxury. Until then, I had to figure out what to do each night, because sleeping wasn’t an option.

How do you keep yourself busy at night?

When I get into bed, my feet jiggle and jangle. I restlessly roll from one side to the next. I flip the pillow from the warm side to the cool side. If my medications kick in, all is good, and I get to fall into a blissful sleep for most of the night. But there have been many times when that didn’t happen, and then I had to figure out what to do for the evening.

How do you keep yourself busy when the rest of the world is in that envious, blissful state of slumber?

Nighttime activities that work and don't work

I find it difficult to do housework in the middle of the night for 2 reasons. Firstly, I am resentful. Resentful of the fact that everyone I live with is sleeping and I am not. But secondly, housework tends to make noise – vacuums and mops and dishwashers all disturb the people who live in my house. And besides – I don’t actually like housework, so I’m happy to have an excuse not to do it.

I have spent many a midnight putting my shoes on and walking around the streets. I live in a very safe area, so it seems like a reasonable thing to do, but it is not always practical. Sometimes it’s freezing cold and pouring rain. Sometimes I don’t want to. And sometimes my body is so completely and utterly fatigued from being on the move 24/7 that walking requires too much physical energy – even in those hours when I can’t keep still.

My favorite ways to relieve RLS symptoms

I love stretching. It is something I have done again and again to try and relieve RLS symptoms. It is always the lower half of my body that fidgets, so I tend to focus on leg stretches. Glutes, hips, hamstrings, calves — anything I can stretch either lying on the floor, draped over a FitBall, or rolling around on a foam roller. Stretches are a wonderful way for me to experience some short-term relief from symptoms and fill in some time in the middle of the night.

Baths and showers are also very relaxing, but again, too noisy once everyone else has gone to bed. I have occasionally had a 2 AM hot shower to try and relieve the pressure, but the sound of water rushing through the pipes is generally not well received in my household.

My favorite evening distractions

My favourite fill-in-time go-to for the evening is distractions: books, television, podcasts, music, journaling, social media, instant messaging, anything I can do either silently or with headphones. It breaches so many of the rules of good sleep hygiene, but to be honest, there are some nights where you just know in your heart of hearts that sleep is not going to come, so it’s just a matter of filling in time until daylight comes. Mentally resting is as close as I get to actual rest.

And my secret shame? It is not something I do anymore, but I used to spend my nights eating. There is a certain comfort to be found in that food and carbohydrates boost energy, which combats the fatigue that saps everything away when insomnia and RLS have been your only companion for days on end.

I will never forget the long, long nights

With thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, I now sleep most nights. It is unusual for me to be up and about in the wee hours.

But I will never forget the long, long nights when all I was doing was trying to keep myself busy until the sun rose.

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