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Restless Legs Syndrome Lifestyle Management

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This information was reviewed and approved by Sheila Tsai, MD (3/1/2017).

The first step in managing restless legs syndrome is to improve sleep habits — what specialists usually call sleep hygiene.

Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can all make RLS worse and should be avoided or limited, including caffeine-containing foods such as chocolate.

  • Movement: An essential part of restless legs syndrome is the urge to move the limbs. Fighting this urge only makes it worse; when you want to move, move. If standing is more comfortable during the day, a higher desk can be used to allow you to stand while working. Some desks can be adjusted to different heights.

  • Communication: Explaining RLS to your family and coworkers may help them understand why you feel the need to pace or stand.

  • Exercise: Moderate exercise may help relieve the symptoms. However, heavy exercise can make the symptoms worse. Massaging the legs may help the feeling go away.

  • Temperature: Taking a hot bath or putting a heating pad on the uncomfortable limbs may help. 

  • Relaxation: Stress may make restless legs syndrome worse; techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, in which each muscle group is tensed and relaxed in turn, may improve symptoms.


Sleep Hygiene

The first step in managing a sleep disorder is good sleep hygiene, or practicing good sleep habits. Here are some sleep hygiene tips to improve the quality of your sleep:

  • The bedroom environment may be overlooked as a cause of sleep disturbance. Although many people feel they fall asleep quickly while watching television, the bright lights may disrupt sleep. Other sources of light such as hallway fixtures or street lamps may have a similar effect. The level of acceptable bedroom light is different for each individual. While many people prefer the bedroom to be kept very dark, others, especially those fearful of the dark, may find comfort in a dim light. The bedroom should be kept quiet. If bright light or noise cannot be avoided, earplugs and eye masks may be helpful. The temperature in the bedroom should be comfortable.

  • "Clock watchers" who become alarmed as the seconds and minutes tick away while they remain awake should remove the clock from the bedroom.

  • Maintain a regular bedtime and waking time. This includes weekends and vacations.

  • Avoid taking naps during the day. Napping in the late afternoon or early evening can disturb nighttime sleep.

  • Alcohol can interfere with sleep. Avoid alcohol within three to four hours of bedtime. Alcohol can lead to repeated awakenings during the latter part of the night.

  • Caffeine and nicotine can interfere with sleep. Drinks containing caffeine (coffee, tea and soda) and nicotine have an arousing effect, causing a disruption in sleep.

  • Common medicines can cause excessive sleepiness or insomnia. Ask your doctor which medicines to avoid if you are having sleep problems.

  • Avoid activities late in the evening. Exercise and mental activities can keep you awake.

  • Ongoing concerns can lead to insomnia. Plan a few minutes each evening to write down your concerns. Schedule activities for the following day. This allows you to "put an end" to the extended workday.

  • Activities in bed should be restricted to those that promote sleep. Some people find reading or relaxing useful.


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