How Is Restless Legs Syndrome Treated?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is one of the most common sleep disorders. It causes unpleasant sensations in the legs and the irresistible urge to move the legs. People describe these sensations as aching, throbbing, itching, pulling, twitching, or tingling. There are many ways to treat RLS.1,2

The type of treatment depends on what your doctor believes is the underlying cause. The basic types of treatments for restless legs syndrome are:1-8

  • Lifestyle changes, including better sleep habits
  • Iron supplements
  • Prescription drugs
  • Devices
  • Home remedies

Lifestyle changes for restless legs syndrome

Many people find simple lifestyle changes may improve their symptoms of RLS. It may take some trial and error to find the combination of lifestyle changes that work for you.

Regular exercise such as walking or yoga helps many people. Others find that reducing or cutting out caffeine, alcohol, or smoking helps. If you work in an office, asking to stand more often or do your job at a standing desk can help relieve day-time leg sensations.8

People with RLS often find that their symptoms get worse when they have not been getting enough sleep. Making sure you set aside enough time for sleep every night helps many people with RLS.8

Certain drugs can trigger RLS, such as antihistamines, anti-nausea medicines, and some antidepressants. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a different medicine that does not aggravate your RLS.1-3

Iron supplements for restless legs syndrome

Many people with restless legs syndrome have low iron levels in their blood and brain. Because of this, taking iron pills sometimes helps relieve the symptoms of RLS. Iron should be taken with Vitamin C to improve how well the body absorbs the iron.9

Iron supplements can cause an upset stomach, constipation, and other side effects, so not everyone can take iron. Eating more red meat, liver, spinach, and other foods high in iron may help too. Due to the dangers of iron overload and iron’s side effects, iron should only be taken with a doctor’s supervision.1,9

Prescription drugs for restless legs syndrome

If RLS occurs nearly every night and causes serious quality of life issues, your doctor may suggest a prescription drug. These drugs include:8

All of these drugs have side effects and may work less well over time. When RLS symptoms get worse even when taking higher doses, it is called augmentation.8

Devices for restless legs syndrome

A few devices are said to treat RLS. However, only 2 devices, the Relaxis pad and Restiffic foot wraps, are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)b to treat restless legs syndrome. Both require a prescription from your doctor.

Many other devices are sold online and provide pressure or vibration to the legs. Some of these devices have been studied and found to help with RLS while others have not. Costs range from $20 to $2,500.5

Home remedies for restless legs syndrome

People reach for a wide variety of home remedies when it comes to finding relief from RLS symptoms. These include:7

  • Stretching
  • Walking
  • Hot or cold packs
  • Massage
  • Magnesium, vitamin D, B9, or B12 supplements
  • Evening bath or shower
  • Weighted blankets
  • Relaxing creams and oils
  • Avoiding tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, or sugar before bed
  • Bar of soap under the fitted sheet

Any stretching or exercise before bedtime should be gentle. Vigorous exercise stimulates the system rather than relaxing it. Some distract themselves from the leg sensations with crossword puzzles, knitting, or video games.9

Most home remedies carry a low or no risk of causing another health problem and are affordable. However, it is always a good idea to talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new supplements.

Treating secondary restless legs syndrome

There are 2 types of restless legs syndrome, primary and secondary. Doctors believe primary RLS is caused by a combination of genetics and environment. Sometimes though, RLS is caused by another health condition. In these cases, treating the underlying cause of RLS relieves symptoms. The following conditions are known to cause RLS in some people:1-3

  • Anemia caused by low iron levels
  • Pregnancy
  • End-stage kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Heart disease
  • COPD
  • Spinal cord injuries

About 1 in 4 pregnant women develop RLS, usually in the third trimester. It often disappears in the weeks after birth.1-3

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: January 2021