Easing the Discomfort of Restless Legs Syndrome

BIDMC Contributor

SEPTEMBER 20, 2018

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People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) experience twitching and discomfort in the legs, usually during the evening and night time hours. “The feeling is usually accompanied by a strong urge to move your legs, to keep them active and lessen the uncomfortable sensation,” says Jacqueline Chang, MD, a pulmonologist in BIDMC's Sleep Disorders Clinic.

“The feeling differs between patients, but most describe RLS as an aching, burning, itching, crawling or tingling sensation,” she says. “This feeling only gets better when you move your legs, which can lead to other sleep-related issues.”

Exactly what causes RLS is unknown, but it is often linked to common triggers or another disease or condition.

Common triggers for RLS include:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Too much caffeine or sugar
  • Certain antihistamines and other over-the-counter medications
  • Certain prescriptions such as antidepressants and anti-psychotic medications

“If someone is suffering from a mild case of RLS, we can usually address it by making a few behavioral changes,” Chang says.

Common behavioral changes include:

  • Adequate sleep hours and healthy sleep habits, including going to bed at the same time every night and reducing the amount of light (natural or electronic) before bed
  • Avoiding caffeine and foods high in sugar
  • Exercising and meditating
  • Changing medications

“I often recommend some sort of physical or mental stimulation for RLS, like placing a hot pack to the area, massage, or even mental stimulation, like doing a crossword puzzle,” Chang says.

In some cases, RLS can be linked to another disease or condition. These include:

  • A family history of RLS
  • Iron deficiency
  • Neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Kidney disease
  • Pregnancy

There are a variety of medications that your doctor could prescribe to help ease the discomfort of RLS. Other treatment options may include lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques. “A sleep medicine specialist can work with you to find the best plan of care,” Chang says.

The multidisciplinary team at the Sleep Disorders Clinic at BIDMC includes neurologists, pulmonologists and psychologists who treat patients with a full range of sleep disorders, from restless legs syndrome, to sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and more.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.