Doctor shares how to stop restless leg syndrome from ruining your sleep

A man struggles with restless leg syndrome at night as he tries to fall asleep at night
(Image credit: Getty)

At the end of a long day, a good night’s sleep is exactly what we need to rest and recharge. However, people with restless leg syndrome (RLS) know all too well how this sleep movement disorder robs you of quality sleep. 

According to guidance from the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, roughly 12 million Americans could have restless leg syndrome. If you think you may have the condition too, you’re probably wondering how to reduce the impact of restless leg syndrome on your sleep.

To help, we spoke to Nilong Vyas, MD, board-certified pediatrician, sleep coach, and founder of family sleep consulting service Sleepless in NOLA of New Orleans, Louisiana. Below is what Dr Vyas says about restless leg syndrome and sleep. But first, here's a quick list of ways to stop RLS from ruining your sleep...

  1. Know your triggers for restless leg syndrome - for example, if itchy fabrics set you off, ditch them well before bed time and consider sleeping naked.
  2. Consider taking a magnesium supplement - these are more effective than magnesium sprays but take a while to build up in your system.
  3. Use cold therapy on itchy, crawling legs and arms - an ice block wrapped in a muslin cloth can provide some instant (if temporary) relief for restless leg syndrome.
  4. Limit caffeine and alcohol - both substances can worsen RLS symptoms
  5. Get up and move - doing circles with your ankles may ease the crawling sensation

What is restless leg syndrome?

“Restless leg syndrome is a sleep movement disorder in which those affected feel a crawling or throbbing sensation that causes the legs to jerk, often at nighttime,” explains Dr Vyas. 

“More women—specifically pregnant or older women—than men have the disorder, but it is not specific to a particular demographic"

Nilong Vyas, MD

“It is one of the most common sleep movement disorders, occurring in about 10% of adults and 2% of children and teens.” Those with restless leg syndrome typically find temporary relief when they move around, yet the discomfort and the urge to move return quickly once that motion ceases.

People with this condition may notice their symptoms picking up while they're still awake before bedtime, but it can also affect you after your head hits the pillow.

A man sits up in bed at night because restless leg syndrome is keeping him awake and is affecting his sleep

(Image credit: Getty)

What causes restless leg syndrome?

In many cases, the exact cause of restless leg syndrome is unclear. However, there are several trends and contributing factors that may influence your likelihood of having the condition or developing it.

“More women—specifically pregnant or older women—than men have the disorder, but it is not specific to a particular demographic per most studies.

“Restless leg syndrome often has no cause,” says Dr Vyas, “but it can have a genetic component or be associated with medical conditions like kidney disease and iron deficiency.” That’s why the sleep expert recommends adding more iron-rich foods to your diet for relief from restless leg syndrome (and therefore sleep better).

How does restless leg syndrome affect sleep?

As Dr Vyas explains, “RLS can affect sleep quality because of the continued uncomfortable sensations in the legs with sleep onset and during sleep.” She adds that it can often wake a person up, stopping them from getting the quantity and quality of sleep they need.

If restless leg syndrome keeps you awake at night, you may be wondering how to know if the condition is severe enough to seek assistance from a doctor. According to Dr Vyas, “Patients suffering from RLS can seek medical attention if sleep is disrupted more than three nights per week.”

How to treat restless leg syndrome for better sleep

To help you in your quest to stop restless leg syndrome from ruining your sleep, we asked Dr. Vyas for her top tips. Here’s what she said:

Have good sleep hygiene - Good sleep hygiene may entail “going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time each day, as well as sticking to a good bedtime routine,” the sleep expert shares.

Image shows different magnesium rich foods that can reduce the symptoms of restless leg syndrome, including spinach and almonds

(Image credit: Getty)

Make healthy dietary changes - Since restless leg syndrome is common amongst people with low iron levels, Dr. Vyas mentions that “increasing iron-rich foods in the diet can be helpful.”

In addition, research shows that limiting caffeine and alcohol intake positively impacts restless leg syndrome—not to mention promoting healthier, sounder sleep even if you don’t suffer from RLS.

Take over-the-counter supplements - In addition to making the lifestyle and dietary changes above, Dr. Vyas says that “some non-prescription treatment options can also be tried,” which we’ll soon cover.

Consult your doctor about medications to help with RLS - “If these treatments ‘fail’ and there is not a vast improvement in RLS symptoms, prescription medications may be started,” Dr. Vyas explains. However, “if a certain underlying cause can be treated,” for instance, an iron deficiency, “the patient may not need to be on medication permanently.”

Magnesium for restless leg syndrome and sleep

If your restless leg syndrome symptoms aren’t severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit—or you’re hesitant to start prescription medications to treat this disorder—you may want to try out magnesium supplements. “Some studies have found a link between magnesium supplementation and improved sleep,” Dr. Vyas notes.

As far as the best formulation goes, Dr. Vyas has a clear preference if you’re going to try out this over-the-counter remedy: “Oral supplements over an external spray are likely more beneficial in improving overall sleep.

“If general sleep is improved, symptoms of restless leg syndrome may also diminish. Once symptoms improve, supplements may be able to be weaned off if the other non-prescription items can be tried again with success.”

What triggers restless leg syndrome before bed

As beneficial as it can be to boost your intake of certain vitamins and nutrients (like iron and magnesium via foods and/or supplements) and build healthier sleep habits, Dr. Vyas explains that it’s even more important to get rid of the triggers that exacerbate restless leg syndrome the most.

Iced coffee being made from espresso

(Image credit: Future)

“Avoiding things that can potentially trigger restless leg syndrome is the best treatment,” she shares. Chief among these triggers are “alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.”

All things considered, if you’re not sleeping and have a hunch that restless leg syndrome is behind your poor sleep, seek medical attention—especially if the first few restless leg syndrome treatments and tips mentioned above aren’t providing the relief and rest you need. 

As Dr. Vyas concludes: “It’s advisable to see your primary care physician to address whether you suffer from restless leg syndrome and what the best treatment options are.”

Further ways to sleep better at night

Adopting a relaxing sleep routine each night can help your body learn the cues for bedtime and sleep. Your routine can include anything that helps you relax, but it shouldn't involve the use of tech an hour before bed as blue light pollution from the screen can interfere with your drive to sleep. Try activities such as a warm bath, gentle stretching, reading, or simply pottering. 

What you sleep on makes a difference too, so make sure you have the best mattress for your body type and sleep position, as well as a comfortable pillow. Also take a look around your bedroom and make sure it's cool, dark and clutter-free – all essentials for optimizing your bedroom for sleep.

Next: Does magnesium help you sleep? Here's what the experts say.

Michele Ross

Michele Ross is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. For Tom's Guide and TechRadar, she interviews medical experts for sleep tips and tricks, as well as reviews mattresses and toppers to see which ones are truly worth buying for different types of sleepers and budgets. She has also covered a range of sleep topics for publications and brands including Well+Good, HUM Nutrition, and Mini Bloom, among others.