The first step in treating a patient who complains of sleeplessness and restless legs syndrome is to try to improve sleep and eliminate possible causes of RLS. Doctors normally try to achieve these goals without the use of drugs, initially. A non-drug approach is a particularly important first step for elderly patients.
- The doctor should first try to treat any underlying medical conditions that may be causing restless legs.
- If medications may be causing RLS, the doctor should try to prescribe alternatives, if possible.
If the cause cannot be determined, it is best to first try better sleep habits and relaxation methods. These approaches may help, even if the patient needs medications later on.
Some people report help or relief from restless legs syndrome with the following behaviors or devices:
- Taking hot baths or using cold compresses.
- Stopping smoking.
- Getting enough exercise during the day.
- Doing calf stretching exercises at bedtime.
- Using Ergonomic measures -- for example, patients might find it useful to work at a high stool, where they can dangle their legs. In meetings or during air travel, it is helpful to have an aisle seat.
- Changing sleep patterns -- some patients report that symptoms do not occur if they sleep late in the morning. Therefore, if feasible, patients can try changing sleep patterns.
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine also improves some cases of RLS.
Some patients recommend alternative treatments for RLS, such as acupuncture and massage. To date, however, there is not enough data on the effectiveness of these treatments.
Because restless legs syndrome is associated with iron insufficiency, people with the condition should get enough iron from their diet. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #57: Anemia.] Iron is found in foods either in the form of heme or non-heme iron:
Review Date: 10/15/2010
Reviewed By: Reviewed by: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.