Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and felt a strange tingly, creeping or crawling feeling on your leg?
That’s it! You’re wide awake now due to this uncontrollable urge to move your leg.
Chances are you have restless leg syndrome.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) wouldn’t be considered your typical sleep disorder, as it can also occur while you’re sitting or resting.
However, these weird feelings most commonly materialize at night, especially while you’re in bed.
I’d like to discuss the different options that can be used as a natural treatment for restless leg syndrome, but first let’s find out a little more about this bedtime affliction.
What is Restless Leg Syndrome?
Restless leg syndrome, formerly known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a condition that causes sufferers to feel uncomfortable sensations in the legs (although some people have experienced the same condition in the arms, and far more infrequently, in the chest or head).
The feelings can range from a mild irritation like “a tickle that won’t stop” or “an itch you can’t scratch”, to an aching in the leg muscles, to all-out unbearable physical pain.
With that being said, most people report mild symptoms of RLS.
However, if you’re someone who suffers moderate to severe symptoms of restless leg syndrome, it’s probably had a huge impact on your life.
Regular bouts of nightly RLS will affect your sleeping patterns, which in turn will lead to difficulty focusing and concentrating on daytime activities, such as school, work, and your social activities.
Eventually the sleepless nights and the constant tiredness, mental and physical fatigue can lead to anxiety and depression.
Who Does RLS Affect?
It is estimated that up to 10% of adults are affected by restless leg syndrome.
RLS can start at any age, including from childhood, and many people find that the symptoms get progressively worse as they age.
Restless leg syndrome is more prevalent in women than men and the most severe cases are typically seen in people who are middle-aged or older.
Interestingly, the Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation conducted a survey among their members and found that 45% of subjects endured their first symptoms before the age of 20.
Research into RLS has led some researchers to claim that the disorder is caused by issues with the brain chemical dopamine, whereas others conclude poor circulation is to blame.
What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?
We can actually put the cause of restless leg syndrome into two very distinct camps, which are primary RLS and secondary RLS.
Primary Restless Leg Syndrome
An idiopathic disease is basically a condition that arises spontaneously and the reasons for this are unknown.
So, in truth, the main cause of Primary RLS is unknown. There are a number of factors that could be attributable:
There could be genetic factors to RLS, especially when the initial symptoms are present before you hit the age of 40. In fact, various studies have shown that certain gene variants may be responsible for up to 50% of RLS cases.
These “gene variants” may in some way affect the release and function of dopamine in the brain. It is dopamine that allows us to carry out normal, everyday movements. The disruption of dopamine movement is also closely linked with several movement disorders, Parkinson’s disease being the most common.
RLS has often been associated with a deficiency of iron in the brain. Iron is actually involved in the process of producing dopamine.
Secondary Restless Leg Syndrome
As the name suggests, secondary restless leg syndrome is typically caused by something else (another condition, issue, etc.) These include:
- Kidney disease
- Pregnancy, but most often in the third trimester
- Varicose veins
- Certain cold and allergy medications
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The Not-So-Natural Treatments for Restless Leg Syndrome
If you are suffering from moderate to severe RLS your doctor will often recommend certain forms of medication.
The first and most common medication prescribed would be dopaminergic drugs. These drugs will help to increase the flow of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine functions as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, and among other things, it helps to facilitate normal movements of the body.
There are 3 specific dopaminergic drugs that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, namely pramipexole, ropinirole, and rotigotine.
However, doctors will generally only prescribe the lowest possible dosage of these drugs, as long-term use can lead to the symptoms of RLS worsening.
Other drugs often prescribed for restless leg syndrome include:
- Gabapentin, which is actually an anti-seizure drug, but various medical studies have shown it can be effective in the treatment of RLS.
- Benzodiazepines are generally used to treat anxiety and sleep issues. These drugs won’t actually relieve the symptoms of RLS, but they are known to improve the quality of sleep, which may be equally helpful to someone suffering with RLS.
- Opioids can be used in extremely low doses to treat restless leg syndrome. But this is usually seen as a last resort due to the higher risk of dependence, and in some cases, misuse.
Let’s Look at a More Natural Treatment for Restless Leg Syndrome
Good Sleeping Habits
I know this is a theme of many articles on the site, but there’s a reason for that.
Good and healthy sleeping habits may not completely cure you of restless leg syndrome, but a peaceful night’s sleep can definitely help to offset many of the symptoms.
I don’t wish to compile a great big list of what is considered “good sleeping habits”, as there are numerous articles on this website that cover these in more specific detail.
Suffice to say, these habits involve:
- Going to sleep and waking up at the same times every day.
- Avoid electronics in the bedroom and try not to use these items (smartphone, laptop, tablet, TV, etc.) at least an hour before bedtime, two hours if possible.
- Ensure your sleep area is dark, cool, and quiet.
There are many other factors that can affect your sleep, but as I say these are covered in more detail in many of my other articles.
If you are particularly interested in creating healthy sleeping habits and good sleep hygiene I would suggest you check out my review of Peter Litchfield’s fantastic Six Steps to Sleep Program.
Aerobic and Resistance Exercises
The importance of exercise for your mental and physical well-being, as well reducing the symptoms of RLS and improving your overall quality of sleep cannot be endorsed enough.
A study of 23 people with RLS was conducted in 2006. The participants performed aerobic exercise and resistance training for the lower body, three times a week. The results – all patients cited a significant decrease in their symptoms of RLS.
There have been various other studies which have proven time-and-time again that exercise is extremely effective for RLS.
Exercise is also a great way to help improve the overall quality of your night’s sleep (as long as it’s not performed just before bedtime).
It is suggested that if you suffer with RLS that you only exercise in moderation, as in don’t workout until you’re aching and in pain, as this will just exacerbate your symptoms.
Stretching Exercises and Yoga
Most forms of exercise will have major benefits if you suffer with restless leg syndrome, but this is especially true in terms of stretching and yoga.
Two separate studies performed in 2012 and 2013 respectively found that the symptoms of RLS were vastly improved through the practice of yoga.
All participants also commented how it improved their mood and drastically reduced their stress levels, which once again is extremely important if you wish to improve the quality of sleep.
Practicing regular upper leg and calf stretches by simply adding these to your daily workout will also be beneficial.
A number of health organizations, including the National Sleep Foundation, suggest that massage should often be performed at home for those of you who suffer with restless leg syndrome.
The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies conducted a study in 2006 on a 35-year old woman who suffered with RLS.
The 3-week study saw the patient undergo sports massage techniques, myofascial release, deep tissue and trigger point therapy. The focus was on the hamstring and piriformis muscles and massage was conducted twice a week, for 45 minutes at a time.
The subject claimed that her symptoms of RLS dramatically reduced after just two sessions and didn’t return until 2 whole weeks after the study had completed.
As with exercise, massage can also help to relax the mind and body, which can help to improve the quality of sleep.
Iron and Vitamin Supplements
Once again, there have been several studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of iron supplements at easing the symptoms of RLS.
There is also evidence that a vitamin D deficiency could be linked to restless leg syndrome.
I would recommend speaking to your doctor who can arrange a simple blood test to check for either iron or vitamin D deficiencies.
If this is the case, you will usually be recommended oral iron supplements and a vitamin D supplement respectively.
Hot and Cold Treatments
I just wanted to quickly touch on the use of hot and cold treatments.
There are those who suffer with RLS that swear by the use of heating pads or ice packs.
The Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation and the National Sleep Foundation also recommend applying hot and cold packs to the legs, or having a hot or cold bath before sleep.
However, there is no actual scientific evidence to support the use of hot and cold treatment for RLS.
And That’s a Wrap
So, there you have it.
We’ve looked at what restless leg syndrome is, what causes it, and who it mainly affects.
I’ve also discussed certain drugs and medications that are prescribed for RLS before looking at the various natural treatments for restless syndrome.
We now know that RLS affects up to 10% of adults and I’m sure many of you may have displayed symptoms previously without ever putting a name to the “condition”.
Restless leg syndrome isn’t just about suffering while you lie in your bed, it can also have a knock-on effect on the overall quality of your sleep.
I would suggest that your first port of call is look at improving your sleep habits and sleep hygiene, as this where your issues may stem from.
Have you suffered with restless leg syndrome?
Is this an ongoing problem?
Has this article just given you a “light-bulb moment” and some of those sleepless nights are now starting to make sense?
If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.