Everything You Need To Know About Restless Leg Syndrome

October 18, 2023

By Justin Field, M.D.
Dr. Field is a board certified, fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Dr. Field has specialized training in minimally invasive spine surgery and motion sparing technologies, such as cervical and lumbar Artificial Disc Replacement, as well as non-fusion stabilization. In addition, he has extensive training in adult deformity correction and treatment.
Everything You Need To Know About Restless Leg Syndrome

Do you ever have trouble sleeping because your legs and feet feel itchy, tingly or cramped? You may be experiencing restless legs syndrome (RLS), a condition that affects up to 10% of people in the United States. RLS usually happens at night or when a person has to sit still for a long time. 

Depending on its severity, RLS can disrupt your sleep patterns, mental health and more. Although there’s no cure for restless legs syndrome, there are many treatment options that can reduce the itchy or painful feeling. Keep reading to learn more about restless legs syndrome — its symptoms, what causes it, and what to do if you experience it. 

Do You Have Restless Legs at Night?

Do You Have Restless Legs at Night?

Restless legs syndrome is different for everyone who experiences it. Some people describe the feeling as an itching or a tingling sensation, while others use stronger terms like cramping, burning and throbbing. Symptoms of restless legs syndrome cover a broad range from mild to severe. 

Regardless of the words they use, the feeling makes people want to kick and move their legs, usually when they lay down to sleep. Keeping your legs still when you have this sensation will make the feeling worse, and eventually, you’ll be compelled to move your legs to relieve it.

While some only experience RLS occasionally, others may have trouble sleeping every night because their legs bother them so much. In some cases, the feeling of restlessness can also affect the arms, chest and face — although it most often only affects a person’s legs. 

When Does RLS Happen?

Most people experience RLS in the evening and when they lie down to sleep. However, RLS can also affect people who sit still for a long time. You might notice a mild to severe feeling of restlessness if you travel in a car, plane or train or sit for long hours at work or home. 

According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, over 80% of individuals with RLS also have PLMS, or periodic limb movement of sleep. Individuals with PLMS experience irregular movement — like jerking and cramping — in their lower limbs while they sleep. Whether or not they wake up, PLMS will disrupt their sleep. 

Who Is Affected by RLS? 

Restless legs syndrome can impact anyone regardless of age or gender. However, it’s most often noticed in people who are older — likely because they may have co-occurring conditions. For example, individuals who have neuropathy are more likely to experience RLS. It also seems to be more prevalent in women than in men. 

While severe RLS tends to impact older adults, it can occasionally occur in young children, teenagers and young adults as well. Mild restless legs syndrome is sometimes misdiagnosed, but the symptoms are so unique that you should know if you experiencing the condition.

How Is Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosed? 

How Is Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosed?

Medical professionals diagnose restless legs syndrome through a series of tests. When you talk to your doctor about RLS, they’ll ask about your family health history and your specific symptoms. Sometimes, restless legs syndrome seems to run in families. 

If your symptoms clearly indicate restless legs syndrome, your doctor will probably run further tests to help determine the cause. They may conduct a physical exam, a neurological exam or run bloodwork to help identify any potential underlying conditions. Understanding the cause of RLS will help with your treatment plan. 

Restless Leg Syndrome Causes

Medical care professionals are still learning about RLS. It can be caused by several different underlying conditions or can exist on its own. One theory is that RLS could be a result of dopamine disruption in the brain. 

If you experience RLS, it’s important to see a doctor so you can determine why it’s happening. While there are many treatment options available, the most effective option for RLS can vary widely depending on the cause. There are two ways restless leg syndrome is diagnosed — either as a primary or a secondary cause. 

Primary Restless Leg Syndrome

Most patients are diagnosed with primary RLS, which means that there isn’t a known underlying condition causing restless legs syndrome. If you experience this type of RLS, it may be genetic, related to lifestyle choices or caused by something that’s not yet understood. 

Thankfully, there are a number of practical steps you can take to treat primary RLS symptoms. Going to your doctor lets you rule out whether anything else is going on so you can have confidence moving forward with your treatment options. 

Secondary Restless Leg Syndrome

If you are diagnosed with secondary RLS, you have an underlying condition that’s causing the problem. Doctors will focus on treating your underlying condition to help manage the RLS symptoms. You can also pursue strategies to reduce the discomfort in your legs. 

Sometimes, RLS can be a sign of iron deficiency, trouble with your kidneys or even peripheral neuropathy. If you take certain antidepressants or psychiatric medications, these can also cause RLS. Always talk to your doctor before changing these medications, even if they are the cause.

In some cases, restless legs syndrome seems to be connected with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, like celiac disease or a poor diet. Some pregnant women may also experience restless legs syndrome for part of their pregnancy. It usually goes away on its own after a few months. 

It’s also possible to experience RLS as a result of a back injury like a slipped disc. Spinal cord lesions or pinched nerves in your spine can also lead to RLS. Because there are so many possible causes, it’s important to discuss any other symptoms you might be experiencing with your doctor. 

RLS and Co-Occurring Disorders

Restless legs syndrome may be caused by another health problem that sometimes causes additional health issues. The most common side effects of RLS are insomnia and poor sleep quality. Most people with RLS have significant trouble falling asleep and may lie awake through the night trying to calm the tingling or aching sensation in their legs. 

Unfortunately, this can have a number of repercussions throughout your day. Sleep is essential for hormonal health, managing anxiety and many other important physical functions. RLS can exacerbate levels of fatigue and anxiety and even contribute to depression. 

What to Do If You Have RLS

If you experience restless legs syndrome, don’t wait to start treatment. This condition tends to worsen over time. Reach out to your doctor so you can determine whether there’s a treatable cause. 

In the meantime, there may be some lifestyle adjustments you can make that could improve your symptoms. Because every person experiences RLS differently, you’ll need to experiment to find what helps you. Thankfully, lifestyle changes will only have positive side effects!

Restless Leg Syndrome Treatment

After you’ve been diagnosed with RLS, there are a few different types of treatment you can pursue. Lifestyle changes are those you make on your own to improve your overall health. Some people notice a marked improvement in symptoms following these changes. 

You can also invest in naturopathic treatment options like massages, hot baths and compression stockings. If your symptoms are severe and other options aren’t helping, your doctor may prescribe you medication or refer you to surgery.

Lifestyle Tips to Improve Restless Leg Syndrome

There are a number of lifestyle changes that can help reduce the symptoms of RLS. Even if these don’t entirely resolve your symptoms, they’ll benefit your overall health. Here are four lifestyle changes you can try that have helped other people with restless legs syndrome:

Lifestyle Tips to Improve Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Exercise: Many people report fewer symptoms when they incorporate regular exercise into their lifestyle. Moderate exercise at least three times a week is a good place to start. Try to avoid working out right before bed, as this can make RLS worse. 
  • Nutrition: For some, nutrition seems to be one key to reducing symptoms. Try lowering the amount of stimulants in your diet — things like coffee, caffeinated tea, chocolate and energy drinks. You should especially avoid these items right before bedtime. 
  • Light stretching: Doing yoga or stretching right before bed can make a positive difference in your symptoms. Focus especially on stretching your hamstrings, calves and ankles, since this is where most people with RLS experience the most discomfort. It’s also important to stretch before and after you work out. 
  • Sleep routine: RLS often makes it very difficult to sleep. Going to bed at the same time each day and having a wind-down routine can help improve your sleep patterns. You can even incorporate stretching, warm compresses, magnesium tablets and other techniques into this routine to help improve RLS symptoms. 

It may take a while to see improvements from lifestyle changes. However, over time, you should notice that these healthy habits are making a positive impact on your overall health. If symptoms of RLS still bother you, you can combine these habits with other treatment options. 

Naturopathic Medicine for RLS

Naturopathic medicine focuses on supporting health through natural means like nutrition, herbal medicine, massage and more. Some people find naturopathic methods very helpful for treating RLS. Of course, that partially depends on the cause and any co-occurring conditions. 

Here are five types of naturopathic treatment that may help relieve restless legs syndrome symptoms: 

  • Massage: Gently massaging your legs can significantly help to reduce symptoms. Some people do this every night before bed, while others only try a massage if their legs start to bother them. You can use your hands, a gentle massage gun or a foam roller. 
  • Supplements: Some people report success from taking iron or magnesium supplements. If you decide to try this treatment option, talk to your doctor first to make sure that these supplements won’t interfere with any medications you’re taking. You should also talk to your doctor about B1 and thiamine deficiencies. 
  • Hot/cold therapy: Warm and cold compresses can help relax your muscles so you can sleep. Try taking a hot shower or warm bath before going to bed, or use compresses directly on your legs. A hot water bottle may also help, although it will only relax one area at a time.
  • Infrared therapy: Light therapy can penetrate deeper into your muscles than regular heat, helping relax them. Some patients have found success with infrared therapy for reducing the cramping associated with RLS. 
  • Compression: Wearing compression stockings may help reduce the cramping you feel at night. However, it can sometimes affect your blood pressure, so it’s important to talk to your doctor before you invest in a pair. 

Using these naturopathic therapies can help relieve symptoms of RLS so that you sleep better at night. However, these treatments may not treat the underlying cause of the condition unless it has to do with muscle tension or a nutrition deficiency.

Medical Treatments for Restless Leg Syndrome

In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication or surgery to help with RLS. There are several different types of medicine that may help relieve symptoms, including dopamine drugs and pain medication. 

A few drugs that may be prescribed for RLS include levodopa, rotigotine, gabapentin and low-dose opioids like oxycodone. These medications can help you manage the pain in your legs so you can rest — however, they won’t heal the underlying cause and may have negative side effects. 

Surgery may be a good option if your condition is caused by neuropathy. Nerve decompression surgery can have a positive impact on RLS and reduce the amount of pain you experience permanently. If your RLS is caused by lumbar spinal stenosis or another spinal problem, spinal surgery can help reduce your symptoms.

Instant Relief for Restless Legs

If you’re reading this at 3 a.m., you may be wondering what you can do right now to relieve the symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Although it’s not guaranteed because the condition presents so differently in everyone, there are some things you can do to possibly bring quick relief:

  • Massage your calves and other areas where you feel discomfort. 
  • Stretch your hamstrings, calves and ankles. You can complete most of these stretches while lying in bed or sitting upright on the edge of your bed. Alternately pointing and flexing your feet can help significantly with leg cramps. 
  • Try a warm compress. Get a towel wet with warm water and lay it on your legs, or use a hot water bottle. You can also try taking a hot shower and then getting back into bed.
  • Get out of bed and do squats or run in place. Sometimes, this can help relieve the symptoms of RLS. 
  • Distract your mind with music or deep breathing exercises. While this won’t directly affect the sensation in your legs, it may help your body start to relax so you can sleep. 

Restless legs syndrome can be extremely debilitating because it affects your sleep and overall well-being. If you experience symptoms of RLS, don’t wait until it gets worse. Reach out to your doctor so you can identify the cause and start treatment quickly. There are so many effective treatment options for this condition.

Contact DISC for Spinal Surgery and Relief From Restless Legs

Contact DISC for Spinal Surgery and Relief From Restless Legs

Are you experiencing restless legs syndrome as a result of spinal injury? At the Desert Institute for Spinal Care, we offer cutting-edge treatments and world-class care to help you recover from spinal pain. We see patients with herniated discs, spinal stenosis, sciatica and other spinal conditions. 

The goal of our practice is to help you heal with minimally invasive surgery. We’ve been in business for over 20 years and operate out of five locations in Arizona. Many patients travel to us because of our reputation. Contact us online to learn more!

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