Don't Shake a Leg

There's no reason to take restless legs syndrome lying down.

By Lisa James

March 2006

You’ve just crawled into bed after a long, tiring day when it starts. Or, to be more accurate, they start—your legs, that is. The tingling. The burning. The feeling like an army of ants is trooping up and down under your skin. No matter what you do, you can’t keep your legs still. And while trying hard not to feel like you’ve hiked a mountain trail for eight hours, you lose yet another night’s sleep.

If misery loves company, you’re in luck: Anywhere from 5% to 15% of all adults suffer the same fate as part of a disorder called restless legs syndrome (RLS). It afflicts some pregnant women, going away without treatment after the baby is born. But most people who have RLS are middle-aged (or older) and often bleary-eyed from lack of sleep.

RLS not related to pregnancy can have a genetic component, since this ailment sometimes runs in families. Certain drugs, including prescription medications used to fight nausea and seizures, and over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, can cause restless legs, as can ailments such as diabetes (and a diabetes-related nerve disorder called peripheral neuropathy), kidney disease and Parkinson’s. RLS has also been linked with a similar condition known as periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), in which someone’s legs or arms move uncontrollably during sleep.

Laid-Back Limbs

So you're not taking any drugs associated with RLS. What’s more, there’s no underlying disease that’s causing your jumpy legs. Now what?

In mild cases of RLS, the first step is a change in routine. A regular program of moderate exercise—walking is perfect—can help calm those restless limbs (and help you shed pounds if you are overweight, which may also ease your RLS in and of itself). If you smoke, don’t, and ditch the caffeine as well. Don’t sit for long periods of time during the day, and try to get out of your shoes as often as possible to allow your leg muscles to flex. Avoid napping during the day, which can make getting to sleep at night even more difficult.

At bedtime, a program of gentle stretching and massage may help ease your symptoms; you can also try bathing your troubled legs in very hot or very cold water (or using heating pads or cold packs). Turn in at the same time each night; going to bed later (if you can sleep in) may also help, since RLS miseries often ease between 4 and 6 a.m.

If these measures don’t work, you may be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. Low levels of iron or folate can cause both RLS and anemia, or a dropoff in the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, by interfering with red blood cell creation; other anemia symptoms include weakness and shortness of breath. (Because anemia can indicate bleeding somewhere within the body, see a health practitioner if you experience these signs.) Magnesium, a mineral vital to proper nerve and muscle function, may also be useful in getting your legs to quiet down.

You know you need your sleep. Getting the jump on RLS can help you find dreamland again.

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