“Restless legs” may sound like a clever name for a running group, but it’s actually a real medical condition that’s anything but cute. It’s marked by tingling, aching, or creepy crawly sensations in the legs (and sometimes arms), and as if that weren’t bad enough, there’s not always a reliable treatment.
“Restless legs syndrome is a condition that causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually because of an uncomfortable sensation. Moving eases the unpleasant feeling temporarily,” explains Christopher Cooke, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Detroit Medical Center. “It typically happens in the evening or nighttime hours when you’re sitting or lying down, therefore making it difficult to sleep.” He says restless legs sufferers (who are more often women than men) also commonly experience fatigue, depression, and irritability because of the sleep loss they experience from RLS.
Here’s the thing: Doctors don’t know exactly what brings on restless legs, although genetics may play a role. Dr. Cooke says the condition is more common among people with low iron levels, as well as conditions like kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes mellitus, and rheumatoid arthritis. It can also crop up during pregnancy, or with the use of some prescription drugs, like antidepressants and antihistamines.
The various (and mostly unknown) causes makes restless legs syndrome difficult to treat. If it’s triggered by a specific situation like the ones listed above, symptoms may go away when a doctor treats the underlying condition. (For instance, if a person’s doctor determines they’re low in iron, an iron supplement may help with the restless legs.) Dr. Cooke adds that a doctor may also prescribe medications like levodopa and pramipexole, which can ease the symptoms of restless legs. (These affect levels of dopamine in the brain, which is thought to play some role in restless legs syndrome.)
People who are struggling with restless legs should absolutely seek out a doctor for a diagnosis and a better understanding of what’s going on. In the meantime, there are also several home remedies for restless legs that doctors recommend. These don’t make the symptoms disappear for good, but they may help provide some relief.
1. Give up caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. Research shows that reducing these substances can have a positive impact on restless legs symptoms—and, in some cases, promote more restful sleep at night.
2. Add exercise or yoga to your routine. A few small studies indicate that moderate exercise may help improve restless legs. For instance, in one group of 23 patients, those who completed a 12-week regimen of 30-minute treadmill walks and lower-body resistance training reported a “significant improvement” in symptoms compared with non-exercisers. Yoga may also be beneficial, according to a very small study of 13 women that found an improvement in symptoms after eight weeks of Iyengar yoga classes. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, workouts that make your legs sore—or exercising within an hour of bedtime—can potentially make symptoms worse.
3. Improve your sleep habits. According to Dr. Cooke, good sleep hygiene may help lessen the insomnia that’s linked with restless legs. This can involve banishing screens from the bedroom; taking a bath before bed; buying blackout curtains for the windows; turning in at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning.
4. Give yourself a home spa treatment. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends self-massage, warm baths, and alternating between heating pads and ice packs to reduce the symptoms of restless legs. This is mostly based on anecdotal evidence as opposed to rigorous research—but if nothing else, they’re still solid ways to get some self-care time in.