Ask SleepBetter: Restless Leg Syndrome

Have you wondered about something related to sleep, but just can’t find the answer? Lots of people do, and that’s why we created Ask SleepBetter. You can ask your own question on the SleepBetter Facebook Page, or by using our Ask SleepBetter contact form. We will try to answer as many questions as possible, but we are not able to answer queries about physical issues or medicinal issues. Those should be addressed face-to-face with a physician.

Today’s question is from a woman whose leg doesn’t want her to sleep:

“A lot of nights right before bed, I get a strange tingling sensation in my leg or sometimes my arm.  It goes away if I move the limb, but then comes back within a minute or so.  It makes it very hard to sleep.  Getting up and walking around helps, but not always.  I’ve heard it’s called Restless Leg Syndrome.  Is there a cure or do you have any tips?”

-Brenda W. (via email)

As always, we recommend that you discuss the issue with your doctor, to rule out any serious issues that could be causing your problem.  What you describe, however, does sound like a textbook example of Restless Leg Syndrome, or RLS.

It wasn’t long ago that many doctors didn’t believe RLS really existed, but scientists in 2012 announced that they think they found its cause.  According to research conducted at Emory University, RLS is the result of a gene mutation.  That’s good news, as it may eventually lead to a cure.  Unfortunately though, for now, there’s no reliable solution for this condition.  There ARE some treatments, however.

According to a Mayo Clinic article about Restless Leg Syndrome, some drugs originally developed for Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy, as well as muscle relaxers, may provide some relief.  Here are some things to try before talking to your doctor about going the prescription medication route:

  • Take pain relievers. For very mild symptoms, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) when symptoms begin may relieve the twitching and the sensations.  This is a possible solution for occasional RLS symptoms.
  • Try baths and massages. Soaking in a warm bath and massaging your legs can relax your muscles.
  • Apply warm or cool packs. You may find that the use of heat or cold, or alternating use of the two, lessens the sensations in your limbs.
  • Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga. Stress can aggravate RLS. Learn to relax, especially before going to bed at night.
  • Establish good sleep hygiene. Fatigue tends to worsen symptoms of RLS, so it’s important that you practice good sleep hygiene. Ideally, sleep hygiene involves having a cool, quiet and comfortable sleeping environment, going to bed at the same time, rising at the same time, and getting enough sleep to feel well rested. Some people with RLS find that going to bed later and rising later in the day helps in getting enough sleep.
  • Exercise. Getting moderate, regular exercise may relieve symptoms of RLS, but overdoing it at the gym or working out too late in the day may intensify symptoms.
  • Avoid caffeine. Sometimes cutting back on caffeine may help restless legs. It’s worth trying to avoid caffeine-containing products, including chocolate and caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea and soft drinks, for a few weeks to see if this helps.
  • Cut back on alcohol and tobacco. These substances also may aggravate or trigger symptoms of RLS. Test to see whether avoiding them helps.

Hopefully by working with your doctor you can get a better night’s sleep despite RLS.

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