5 Ways You Can Conquer Restless Legs at Night

Strategies you can try at home to relieve symptoms
male bare feet photo from under the bed, selective focus

You’re lying in bed, hoping to fall asleep. But you can’t nod off because of an overwhelming urge to move your legs. What’s going on?

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You may have restless legs syndrome (RLS). This neurological disorder creates uncomfortable throbbing, pulling or creeping sensations in the legs.

“You feel an urge to move your legs at night and at rest, and can only relieve it by moving your legs,” notes Nancy Foldvary, DO, Director of the Sleep Disorders Center.

More common in women

About 5 percent to 10 percent of the population has RLS, which affects women more than twice as often as men. Because RLS may come and go, mild cases may be difficult to diagnose.

“In fact, some people don’t seek medical attention for RLS because their symptoms are mild and intermittent. Others don’t recognize that this problem can lead to other sleep and health issues,” she says.

Symptoms: Mild to severe

RLS usually occurs at night when you’re relaxing, resting or trying to sleep. The severity of your symptoms — ranging from irritating to painful — can increase throughout the night.

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Although sensations can develop in just one leg, both legs are usually affected.  “The arms and entire body can be affected in more advanced cases,” says Dr. Foldvary.

Your doctor will look for key features to make a diagnosis of RLS. One is that moving your legs relieves discomfort. Another classic feature is a distinct symptom-free period in the early morning that allows for more refreshing sleep.

5 strategies to try at home

Here are five strategies Dr. Foldvary suggests you try on your own to ease restless legs:

  1. Take a warm bath or shower before you retire for the night.
  2. Read or do crossword puzzles or another mentally engaging (but not stimulating) activity before bedtime.
  3. If RLS strikes when you’re asleep or falling sleep, take a brief walk to the kitchen or bathroom. Often, just getting out of bed quickly can make symptoms disappear.
  4. When symptoms develop in bed, try rubbing or lightly massaging your legs.
  5. Avoid spending more than 20 minutes awake in bed with RLS symptoms. Doing so risks conditioning your body to be in bed, and not sleep. That can lead to a chronic insomnia disorder.

Triggers for restless legs

It’s good to be aware that periods of inactivity can trigger RLS, including:

  • Long car trips
  • Sitting in a movie theater
  • Long-distance flights
  • Immobilization in a cast
  • Relaxation exercises

Many people also find that RLS symptoms worsen when events or activities cut down on their sleep time.

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Cause remains a mystery

While the cause of RLS is unknown, researchers have uncovered a link to low levels of iron or dopamine in the brain. Genetics may also be a factor.

Kidney disease and other chronic conditions, pregnancy and certain medications can also cause RLS.

If RLS continues to prevent you from falling asleep or routinely wakes you up at night, talk to your doctor or consult a sleep medicine specialist. A good night’s sleep will help you function at your best.

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