In addition to medication, lifestyle changes and drug-free treatments can provide restless legs relief. Read about home remedies that may surprise (and help) you.
Some call it a creepy-crawly feeling. Others say it’s more of a gnawing or burning sensation in their limbs. But however you describe restless legs syndrome (RLS), it’s important to get this uncomfortable condition properly treated. “RLS is a real disease with real consequences,” says Alon Avidan, MD, MPH, an associate professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at UCLA. Among those consequences is a serious lack of sleep: Since symptoms tend to get worse at night, you may not get the rest you need, which could affect your physical, mental, and emotional health the next morning — and beyond.
For many people, getting restless legs relief will be a multi-step process. Medication can help, but lifestyle changes and even some home remedies and drug-free treatments may also be useful to calm your restless limbs.
Medication for Restless Legs Syndrome
Doctors have a number of useful medications in their arsenal to use against restless legs syndrome. Dopamine (a chemical that helps send messages between nerve cells) is thought to play a key role in restless legs syndrome, so people with significant or frequent RLS symptoms may be helped by medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease, which also stems from problems related to dopamine production. Ropinirole (Requip) and pramipexole (Mirapex) are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat RLS. They work by binding to dopamine receptors, mimicking the action of dopamine in the brain.
Other medications to help manage RLS include anticonvulsant drugs that treat seizures, such as gabapentin (Neurontin), and anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam (Xanax). Sometimes when the condition is very severe and is not helped by those medications, opioids (pain killers like codeine) are tried. Iron deficiency may also be a culprit, so if you have low iron levels, your doctor will probably prescribe supplements.
Drug-Free Treatments for Restless Legs Relief
Medications are just one part of taming restless legs, however. Eliminating common RLS triggers like alcohol, tobacco, and stress may also help relax your limbs. Give these drug-free treatments and home remedies a try as well:
- Walk and stretch – Since movement helps restless legs, walking is a great way to get relief. Light to moderate exercise during the day has been shown to ease nighttime symptoms. Stretches that work your calves, Achilles tendons, thighs, and hamstrings may be especially beneficial.
- Apply heat or cold – Hot compresses, heating pads, or warm baths relieve restless legs in some people. For others, ice packs and cold showers do the trick.
- Try massage – A relaxing leg massage may help relieve RLS symptoms.
- Use muscle rubs – Over-the-counter muscle rubs like Bengay and Aspercreme may be beneficial. Dr. Avidan says these preparations could help improve blood flow and relieve pain.
- Drink chamomile tea – Chamomile tea induces sleep, so Avidan says it’s worth a try.
- Have sex – Many people report that their symptoms are relieved by having sex. It’s not clear why this may help, Avidan says, but the relaxation that follows an intimate encounter could be one explanation.
- Keep mentally busy – An activity that stimulates the brain can help control RLS. Try crossword puzzles, reading, writing, or Sudoku. Even having stimulating conversation can be beneficial.
- Sleep in a soapy bed – This may sound more than a little bizarre, but many people swear that putting a bar of soap under their bottom sheet chases away restless legs syndrome and nighttime leg cramps. Avidan says he’s heard of this claim and finds it intriguing, but he notes that there’s no scientific evidence that it works.
Above all, Avidan says, you should get a proper medical checkup if you suspect you have restless legs. Doctors can make a diagnosis based on your symptoms — a sleep study is not needed. Getting the right treatment plan in place should improve your sleep and your quality of life.
Regina Boyle Wheeler