How to Sleep Through the Night with Restless Leg Syndrome
Your head finally hits the pillow at the end of a productive but tiring day. But even though you’re mentally and physically exhausted, you can’t seem to lay still.
You desperately want to relax your body and drift off to sleep. Still, every few minutes, you get the urge to move your legs to alleviate an inexplicable and uncomfortable sensation.
If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you may have restless legs syndrome. Restless legs syndrome (also known as restless leg syndrome, RLS, or Willis-Ekbom disease) affects an estimated 5 to 10 percent of adults and 2 to 4 percent of children in the United States.
While it isn’t life-threatening and typically not indicative of underlying conditions, RLS can impede sleep. And, if prolonged, sleep deprivation can have both physical and mental health implications.
What is Restless Leg Syndrome?
At the core, restless leg syndrome is a neurological disorder, meaning the unpleasant sensation and urge to move come from the brain. As explained by the Johns Hopkins Center for Restless Legs Syndrome, the condition has four key characteristics:
- RLS creates an uncomfortable sensation in the legs, resulting in the urge to move them.
- Symptoms of restless leg syndrome peak at night.
- Periods of rest (such as laying down in bed or sitting for a long stretch of time) bring on the sensation and urge to move.
- Movement relieves the symptoms.
Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms
The sensation of RLS and the resulting urge to move doesn’t come from a physical trigger but a neurological one. The feeling occurs “inside” the legs, and many people with RLS often have difficulty describing it. Those with the condition often use words like pulling, itching, tingling, and creeping to explain the overwhelming urge to move.
RLS symptoms don’t occur only at night; some people experience the tingle to move after sitting for an extended period of time (like on an airplane) or whenever they remain still in a resting position. In general, people with RLS feel the sensation in both legs. You may also experience it in your thighs, feet, arms, and hands as well.
People with restless legs syndrome may also feel the symptoms in their thighs, feet, arms, and hands.
The symptoms of restless leg syndrome can range in severity and frequency of occurrence. As previously mentioned, RLS can have broader side effects if it consistently prevents sleep. For example, chronic lack of sleep can lead to daytime drowsiness, worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety, irritability, unwanted weight change, and more.
Restless Leg Syndrome Causes
We know what triggers restless leg syndrome: laying or sitting still for an extended period of time. But what causes restless leg syndrome?
The scientific community has yet to determine the root cause, though researchers have a few theories. According to the Mayo Clinic, some believe RLS results from an imbalance of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that sends signals controlling muscle movement. Iron deficiency may also cause or worsen the condition, and restless leg syndrome can be hereditary.
Restless Leg Syndrome Treatments
RLS does not have a known cure, but people with the condition can find relief through a combination of medication and behavioral changes.
Restless Leg Syndrome Medication
Currently, no medication can “cure” restless leg syndrome. However, doctors can prescribe medications that help reduce restlessness. According to the Mayo Clinic, drugs used for RLS treatment include sleep medications, muscle relaxants, medications that affect calcium channels, medications that increase dopamine, and opioids.
Whether or not you take prescription medication for RLS, you can try to relieve symptoms with stretches and exercise.
Many people with restless leg syndrome turn to yoga to find relief. A 2013 study confirmed that for women, regularly practicing yoga can reduce RLS symptoms, improve sleep, and help manage stress. Studies show that regular aerobic exercise and lower body resistance training can help as well.
Home Remedies for Restless Leg Syndrome
In addition to establishing an exercise regiment, you can try a few home remedies or self-care practices to alleviate the restlessness and agitation associated with RLS.
There isn’t firm science to back up the effectiveness of these tips and tricks—so don’t expect a sure-bet solution. However, many people do find relief, though limited or short-lived, with these remedies:
- Hot baths
- Hot and cold compression
- Foot wraps
- Iron supplements
- Magnesium supplements
- Limiting caffeine consumption
- The bar of soap trick
Environmental Tips for Better Rest with RLS
For people with restless leg syndrome, falling asleep and staying asleep can be a nightly battle. While you can treat the symptoms of RLS directly with the strategies described above, you can also make environmental changes that help you relax and rest. Because people experience RLS most severely at night, anything that helps you fall asleep faster can bring relief.
Even if you don’t have restless leg syndrome, you may enjoy the comfort of a weighted blanket. A weighted blanket won’t make the uncomfortable sensation in your legs go away, but the pressure from the blanket may soothe you and override the urge to move.
The Best Mattress for Restless Leg Syndrome
Whether you have RLS, arthritis, chronic back pain, or any other condition that causes discomfort when you sleep, you want to make sure you have the right mattress for optimum comfort and support.
While there isn’t a specific model or mattress brand that caters specifically to those with RLS, the best mattresses for restless leg syndrome have a few common characteristics. When shopping for your next mattress, keep these factors in mind:
- If you have RLS and sleep with a partner, you’ll want a mattress with excellent motion isolation so your movements don’t disrupt your partner’s sleep.
- Many people with restless leg syndrome don’t like the “sinking” feeling of contouring mattresses with too much give. To avoid the sensation of being trapped in your mattress, opt for a medium-firm mattress with superior core or zoned support so it won’t sag after a couple of years of use.
- Contouring mattresses made with heat-sensitive materials can also add to your discomfort and the feeling of being trapped. For example, memory foam can trap heat as it molds to the shape of your body. If you have RLS, you may prefer a temperature-neutral material like latex or Nolah’s AirFoam™ technology.
While there isn’t a known cure to restless leg syndrome, there are treatments available and lifestyle and environmental changes you can make to ease the discomfort. Remember, getting sufficient sleep is essential to your overall health, making RLS symptom management a top priority.
If you want to learn more about the condition or have questions about treatment options, check out the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation’s online resources.