For most people with restless leg syndrome (RLS), the trouble starts when they lie down and try to relax. Unpleasant sensations in their legs—variously described as burning, creeping, tugging, or like insects crawling inside their legs—cause an uncontrollable urge to move, which leads to tossing and turning, lots of late-night pacing, and very little sleep. About 80 percent of RLS sufferers also experience a more common condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), characterized by involuntary leg twitching or jerking movements every 10 to 60 seconds. Both are classified as sleep disorders— not surprising given that they lead to sleepless nights, exhaustion, and daytime fatigue that impacts all aspects of the sufferer’s life. RLS can run in families, which suggests a genetic component for some sufferers, but iron deficiency, pregnancy, and chronic diseases such as kidney problems, Parkinson’s, and rheumatoid arthritis also play a role. Antidepressants, anti-nausea and anti-seizure drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications are possible culprits as well. There’s no cure for RLS, although specific pharmaceuticals like levodopa, pramipexole, and ropinole offer some relief. But the relief is not always long-term and these drugs can have nasty side effects. Before you opt for them, try these alternative approaches instead.
Stretching, stroking, and kneading your leg muscles will increase blood flow in the area. You can calm a twitching leg by grasping the largest part of your calf with the palm of your hand and pulling it as far from your shin as is comfortable. Before letting it go, squeeze your calf muscle a few times. Spend about five minutes on each leg. Use both hands to massage your thighs, starting just above the knee and working toward your hip.
A recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that people with PLMD induced insomnia can benefit from both the immediate and long-term effects of exercise. This reinforces the findings of an earlier study that moderate aerobic exercise on a treadmill combined with lower-body weight training three days a week improved RLS symptoms. Other moderate exercise, such as walking or yoga, has a similar effect.
Since iron and folate deficiencies are known factors in RLS, sufferers should increase their consumption of dark-green leafy veggies or take 50 to 65 mg or iron (cut that amount in half if you experience constipation or digestive upset) and 5 to 30 mg a day of folic acid. Try taking 800 to 1,000 mg of calcium, 500 mg of magnesium, and 300 mg of potassium at bedtime as well—all three of them affect muscle contractions and relaxation. (Reduce the magnesium if stools become loose.)
A number of small studies have reported positive results with 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E a day, with some of the subjects experiencing complete relief.
Anecdotal and clinical evidence suggest that homeopathic remedies, such as arsenicum album and Rhustoxicodendron, and acupuncture can relieve RLS, as can herbs like astragalus, horse chestnut, and butcher’s broom. Meditation and relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation can also quiet symptoms. Anyone with
RLS patients should limit alcohol intake, quit smoking, and eliminate sugar, caffeine, and refined foods from their diet.