What Can I Do About Leg Discomfort That Wakes Me up in the Night?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Is there anything I can do about the tingling and discomfort in my legs that wakes me up over and over during the night?

Expert Answer

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for Caring.com's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

What you likely have is called restless leg syndrome, a type of involuntary movement disorder that causes itchiness, tingling, prickling, and other vague symptoms that prompt sufferers to feel they have to move their legs. There are many ways to treat it, depending on the factors that might be triggering it.

One of the first things to consider is whether your problem might be related to another health issue. People who have restless leg syndrome often suffer from some other condition, such as diabetes, arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, iron deficiency anemia, vitamin B deficiency, thyroid disease, or kidney problems.

If you know you have one of these other conditions, make sure you're getting good treatment to keep it under control. And be sure to mention to your doctor that you're also experiencing restless leg syndrome, since the conditions could be related.

Many medications can also cause restless leg syndrome, so you'll need to discuss with your doctor whether you should change medications or dosages to help you sleep better. Some antidepressants, some antihistamines, and lithium, for example, are known to bring on restless leg syndrome.

It's also possible, though, that your to restless leg syndrome is not related to another known condition or to medications. So be sure to mention the problem to your doctor no matter what.

Treatment for restless leg syndrome usually involves taking medication. The most commonly prescribed are the Parkinson's drugs pramipexole, ropinirole, L-dopa/carbidopa, bromocriptine, and pergolide, all of which have been shown to reduce or eliminate the muscle jerks. Pramipexole is many doctors' drug of choice to start with, since it seems to be the most effective, with the fewest side effects. Some doctors also prescribe Clonazepam, a benzodiazepine, to help patients sleep more deeply.

Your doctor will probably want to do a full evaluation before deciding which medication to try first. Because restless leg syndrome has been linked to deficiencies in iron and B vitamins, particularly folate, you also might want to try boosting your intake of these nutrients.

Studies have linked restless leg syndrome symptoms to smoking, obesity, and caffeine and alcohol intake, so consider whether any of these lifestyle factors apply to you. If restless leg syndrome is wrecking your sleep, it might be worth:

*quitting smoking.

*losing weight.

*drinking less coffee.

*cutting back on alcohol consumption.

Some studies have found a connection between celiac disease and restless leg syndrome. When this is the case, eliminating simple carbohydrates and starches such as sugar, white flour, and wheat products works to prevent the symptoms.

Some people report that taking calcium and magnesium reduces nocturnal muscle spasms; others say exercising hard during the day helps reduce leg movement at night. Many people also find they benefit from relaxation exercises and massage.

It's worth trying any or all of these ideas -- in consultation with your doctor -- to see what works best for you.