Restless legs syndrome - the facts

Are you one of the people who crawl into bed after a long day feeling you should be asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, only to find yourself tossing and turning? If so, could you be suffering from restless legs syndrome, or RLS?

Restless legs syndrome - the facts

Most of us agree - there's nothing like a good night's sleep. But are you one of the people who crawl into bed after a long day feeling you should be asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, only to find yourself tossing and turning? If so, could you be suffering from restless legs syndrome, or RLS? I have a vested interest in knowing more - I've suffered from RLS for years. Read on - help is at hand!

RLS - what is it?

As the name suggests, restless legs syndrome usually affects both legs and makes you feel your legs can't keep still. People describe it in different ways - 'fidgety' legs, a 'crawling' sensation under the skin, small electric shocks or sometimes just general discomfort.


  • Are usually worse in the evening or at night
  • Are worse if you're sitting or lying down
  • Often start when you're in a confined space, like a car seat (I first realised how distressing the condition is when I took an overnight ferry crossing without a cabin and had to sit up in a seat all night - never again!)
  • Usually affect both legs
  • Tend to get better briefly if you stretch or massage your legs

Who gets it?

About one person in 10 gets RLS over a lifetime. It tends to start in your 30s or 40s, but often gets worse over the years. It can run in families. Often no cause is found, but it can be linked to:

  • Pregnancy
  • Lack of iron (which can also cause anaemia)
  • Taking medications including tablets for blood pressure, epilepsy, mental health or even for hay fever
  • Problems with your kidneys or thyroid gland
  • Having diabetes or Parkinson's disease

How is it treated?

Your doctor may do some blood tests to check for one of the conditions above - if they're the cause, treating them may banish your symptoms. If medication is the culprit, your doctor may suggest a change of tablets. If your symptoms are severe, there are several tablets that can help, but they have to be taken regularly. For many people with milder symptoms, simple measures can end the misery.

How can I help myself?

  • Try cutting out caffeine (in coffee, tea and chocolate) for a couple of weeks to see if it helps. If it does, you may be able to drink small amounts early in the day without your symptoms recurring
  • Avoid alcohol, especially at night
  • Don't take naps in the day, no matter how tired you are
  • Don't lie in if you've had a bad night. This makes you less likely to sleep the next night
  • When symptoms come on, massage your legs for a few minutes
  • Stick to the matinee showing for cinema or theatre and avoid travelling at night - having restless legs when you're stuck in a seat is miserable.

Exercise - help for more than your heart

Many of my patients don't exercise because they think it only 'counts' if they get fit enough to run a marathon. In fact, almost any exercise will help. Start with a gentle 10-minute walk, building up speed and length of exercise as your fitness improves. You don't need special equipment (apart from shoes with good cushioning to act as shock absorbers for your joints). Exercise can help with:

  • Your heart - regular aerobic exercise (the kind that makes you mildly out of puff) reduces blood pressure, improves cholesterol and cuts your risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) - weight-bearing exercise is key for strong bones in later life. It's one of the few medical conditions that swimming - where your weight is supported by the water - doesn't help
  • Restless legs - exercising during the day (but not too close to bedtime) has been shown to give relief
  • Tiredness - bizarrely, regular exercise is highly effective, even for tiredness caused by serious conditions like cancer

If you haven't exercised regularly for years, the thought of starting can be daunting, but there is help at hand. The MyHealth tool allows you to look at every aspect of your lifestyle and work out how you can make changes to improve your health. It helps you to set manageable targets and encourages you along the way. Whether you're a restless legs sufferer or not, taking up the challenge, could be the start of a whole new you.

So what are you waiting for? After a miserable winter and the coldest March on record, the sun is finally on its way and the park is calling!

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.