Imagine needing rest desperately, but when you lie down you are hit with an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. You can’t get comfortable; you can’t sit still. These sensations can be disruptive, annoying and, at times, painful. This is the reality for people who suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Let’s explore this uncomfortable disorder and its effect on sleep.  

What is restless legs syndrome? 

Restless Legs Syndrome, also called Willis-Ekbom disease, is a sleep disorder that causes an unpleasant sensation in the legs, creating an irresistible urge to move.  

Approximately 7-10% of the U.S. population has Restless Legs Syndrome, and it appears more frequently in women than men. The sensations emerge when someone is sitting or inactive for long periods of time, most often in the late afternoon and evenings. The agitation can become more severe at night, disrupting or preventing sleep. For many, relief only comes when they move their legs or go for a walk, but symptoms may return when they stop moving.  

What are the typical restless legs syndrome symptoms? 

There are currently no tests or scans that detect RLS, so doctors rely on patients to describe their symptoms when diagnosing the disorder. A patient may be diagnosed with Restless Legs Syndrome if they meet the following criteria:  

  • They have an urge to move their legs, and sometimes arms, prompted by an unpleasant feeling in the limbs. 
  • The sensations appear when the person is inactive and are briefly relieved by movement or walking 
  • Uncomfortable feelings in limbs intensify in the evening
     

What does restless legs syndrome feel like?  

Well, it depends on who’s experiencing it. RLS sensations have been described as itching, pulling, crawling, creeping, throbbing, aching or burning. These sensations often appear in the shin, between the knee and the ankle. For some, it can be minorly uncomfortable, a slight prickling inside the legs. For others, it can be truly painful. Symptoms tend to worsen with age, though people of all ages have reported RLS sensations.  

What causes restless legs syndrome?  

Though the root cause of RLS is unknown, genetics is believed to be a factor. Half of Restless Legs Syndrome patients have a close relative with the condition. In some cases, RLS has been associated with: 

  • Pregnancy: Restless Leg Syndrome can occur during pregnancy. 20% of women experience RLS during their third trimester. Symptoms disappear shortly after the baby is born.   
  • Alcohol, substances, medication: Certain substances can trigger RLS symptoms or make them worse. These include alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, anti-nausea medications, select antidepressants, and antihistamines. 
  • Medical conditions: RLS has been tied to late-stage kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, iron deficiencies, and peripheral neuropathy. 
  • Sleep problems: Sleep deprivation or another sleep disorder such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea can trigger and intensify RLS sensations. 

How does restless legs syndrome affect sleep? 

Those who suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome regularly report sleep problems. Since symptoms can worsen in the evening and are triggered by inactivity, RLS patients can find it incredibly difficult to fall asleep- and stay asleep.  

In order to shake the unpleasant sensation, they may spend a significant amount of time moving their legs and may have to get up and walk around. With frequent movement disrupting sleep, RLS patients often experience fatigue and sleep deprivation.  

What home remedies can treat restless legs syndrome? 

The bad news: there is no cure for Restless Legs Syndrome. It is a chronic condition that some people experience their whole lives, though some go into remission and don’t experience symptoms for years at a time. 

The good news: there are a number of ways to manage RLS symptoms. Medical professionals can recommend medicinal treatment plans that may involve prescription drugs. If your RLS is caused by a separate medical condition (i.e. iron deficiency), a doctor can target treatment to address that condition. 

RLS patients can manage mild or moderate symptoms at home through the following: 

  • Improve sleep quality: Since poor sleep can trigger RLS sensations, practicing good sleep hygiene may help reduce symptoms. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, developing a bedtime routine, and creating a sleep environment conducive to high quality sleep. 
  • Exercise: A study found that the severity of RLS symptoms reduced by 39% after six weeks of regular exercise. Working out could offer the relief RLS patients are looking for.  
  • Avoid substance triggers: Knowing that alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can trigger symptoms, RLS patience should avoid consuming those substances. 
  • Massages, hot baths, ice packs: Massages, hot baths, and ice packs can stimulate the legs and may offer soothing relief for RLS patients. 
  • Pneumatic compression devices: Pneumatic compression devices squeeze the legs to increase blood flow. Initial research shows promising results, with many in the study group reporting improved quality of life. 

We hope that those experiencing RLS will soon be able to get some well-deserved rest, and they can move towards a better night’s sleep.