RLS: Getting more sleep

Introduction

Having a sleepless night now and then can be annoying. But when you have restless legs syndrome, going without sleep night after night can make life miserable. You may be so tired that you just feel like crying.

If restless legs are robbing you of sleep, you're not alone. But there may be some things you can do for yourself to make it easier to get a good night's sleep, especially if your symptoms are mild.

 

Restless legs syndrome is a disorder that makes you feel like you must move your legs. People often describe these feelings as tingling, "pins and needles," prickling, pulling, aching, or crawling. When you have restless legs, moving them usually makes them feel better, at least for a short time. For most people, this problem happens at night when they are trying to sleep.

Test Your Knowledge

The main symptom of restless legs syndrome is numbness in the legs.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    The main symptom is a tingling or aching feeling in your legs that makes you want to move them to get relief.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    The main symptom is a tingling or aching feeling in your legs that makes you want to move them to get relief.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Being unable to go to sleep is the biggest problem with restless legs. When restless legs keep you up at night, you keep getting more and more tired. And being overly tired can make your restless legs even worse.

But many people are able to get a good night’s sleep most nights by making a few changes in their habits. In fact, studies show that having the right daily habits—such as getting regular exercise and drinking less caffeine—improves sleep.1

Even with restless legs syndrome, some changes in your habits may help you sleep better.

Test Your Knowledge

Daily habits can affect my sleep.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    The time you get out of bed, the size and timing of your dinner, how you set your thermostat, whether or not you get regular exercise, and many other choices you make can affect your sleep patterns.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    The time you get out of bed, the size and timing of your dinner, how you set your thermostat, whether or not you get regular exercise, and many other choices you make can affect your sleep patterns.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

If your restless legs symptoms are mild, you may be able to get a good night's sleep most nights by making some changes in your lifestyle. Make sure to follow these general sleep tips:

  • During the day:
    • Don't drink liquids that have caffeine (coffee, tea, some sodas), especially 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
    • Don't use tobacco, especially near bedtime or if you wake up during the night. Nicotine is a stimulant, which means it makes you more alert and more awake.
    • Don't drink alcohol late in the evening.
    • Get regular exercise, but don't exercise within 3 or 4 hours of bedtime.
    • Get plenty of sunlight in the outdoors, especially in late afternoon.
  • At bedtime:
    • Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime. A light snack may help you sleep.
    • Don't go to bed thirsty, but don't drink so much that you have to keep getting up to go to the bathroom.
    • Set aside time for solving problems earlier in the day so you don't carry anxious thoughts to bed. Try writing down your worries in a "worry book," and then set it aside well before bedtime.
    • Do relaxing activities before bedtime. Try deep breathing, yoga, meditation, tai chi, or muscle relaxation techniques. Take a warm bath. Play a quiet game, or read a book.
  • During the night:
    • Reduce noise in the house, or mask it with a steady, low noise such as a fan running on slow speed or a radio tuned to static. Use comfortable earplugs if you need to.
    • Keep the room cool and dark. If you can't darken the room, use a sleep mask.
    • Use a pillow and a mattress that are comfortable for you.
    • If watching the clock makes you anxious about sleep, turn the clock so you can't see it, or put it in a drawer.
    • Reserve the bedroom for sleeping and sex. A bit of light reading may help you fall asleep, but if it doesn't, do your reading elsewhere in the house. Don't watch TV in bed.
    • If you can't fall asleep, or if you wake up in the middle of the night and don't get back to sleep quickly, get out of bed and go to another room until you feel sleepy.

People who have restless legs may need to do extra things to get more sleep:

  • Regular exercise is important, but very hard workouts may make your symptoms worse. Try to figure out what level of exercise works for your symptoms and at what point exercise triggers your restless legs.
  • Bathing in very hot or very cold water before bedtime may help. Or try using a heating pad or ice bag on your legs. Some people find that having a heated mattress pad on the bed helps.
  • Change your sleep schedule. If your symptoms usually get better around 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., try going to bed later than usual or allowing extra time for sleeping in to help you get the rest you need.
  • You may be able to control your symptoms by gently stretching and massaging your legs before bed or as discomfort begins.

If your symptoms don't get better, talk to your doctor. He or she may prescribe drugs to control your restless legs and help you sleep.

Test Your Knowledge

When I am tossing and turning, unable to sleep, I should stay in bed until I fall asleep.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    If you are tossing and turning, you should not stay in bed until you fall asleep. You need to establish the bed as a place for sleep, not sleeplessness. If you aren't asleep within 15 or 20 minutes, go to another room and do a quiet activity like reading until you are sleepy.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    If you are tossing and turning, you should not stay in bed until you fall asleep. By staying in bed, you are associating the bed with sleeplessness. If you aren't asleep within 15 or 20 minutes, go to another room and do a quiet activity like reading until you are sleepy.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to find ways to get more sleep.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes where you have questions. Your doctor may have more suggestions on how you can sleep better.

If you would like more information on restless legs syndrome, the following resources are available:

Organizations

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD  20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
E-mail: nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
 

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

  • Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
  • Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.

National Sleep Foundation
1522 K Street NW
Suite 500
Washington, DC  20005
Phone: (202) 347-3471
Fax: (202) 347-3472
E-mail: nsf@sleepfoundation.org
Web Address: www.sleepfoundation.org
 

The National Sleep Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, can provide you with brochures on sleep disorders and a list of accredited sleep disorder clinics.


Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation
1610 14th Street NW
Suite 300
Rochester, MN  55901
Phone: (507) 287-6465
Fax: (507) 287-6312
E-mail: rlsfoundation@rls.org
Web Address: www.rls.org
 

The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with restless legs syndrome (RLS). General medical information and research updates are available online and through newsletters and special publications. The Web site has numerous links to support groups and resources for more information about the condition.


WE MOVE
204 West 84th Street
New York, NY  10024
E-mail: wemove@wemove.org
Web Address: www.wemove.org
 

WE MOVE is an Internet resource for movement disorder information. The organization is dedicated to educating people about the latest treatment options for neurologic movement disorders. WE MOVE also has information on support groups and hosts discussions and chat rooms on the Web site.


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References

Citations

  1. Brown FC, et al. (2002). Relationship of sleep hygiene awareness, sleep hygiene practices, and sleep quality in university students. Behavioral Medicine, 28(1): 33–38.

Last Updated: March 2, 2010

Author: Kathleen M. Ariss, MS

Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine

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