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7 Common Triggers for Restless Leg Syndrome

April 04, 2024

Your mind might not be the only thing racing and keeping you awake at night. Up to 15% of Americans have restless leg syndrome.

And restless leg syndrome isn’t just annoying — it can interrupt your sleep, which can have a serious impact on your physical and emotional health.

Here’s what you need to know about restless leg syndrome and eight common triggers for the condition, according to Jeffrey Lahrmann, MD, a specialist with the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute Chase Family Movement Disorders Center in Vernon.

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Restless leg syndrome usually strikes at night, making it hard to sleep.

“Restless leg syndrome causes an unpleasant urge to move during periods of inactivity, often in the evening,” says Dr. Lahrman.

The sensation in your legs can feel like:

  • Tingling
  • Pulling
  • Aching
  • Cramping

Moving can usually alleviate the sensation, but only temporarily, says Dr. Lahrman. And since it often happens at night, it can be disruptive to your sleep.

> Related: How One Condition Is Often Mistaken for Parkinson’s

7 common triggers of restless leg syndrome

The cause of restless leg syndrome is unknown, although research shows its caused by dysfunction in a group of nerve cells that control body movements. Yet, Dr. Lahrmann says common triggers can include:

  1. Iron deficiency. This can disrupt the brain’s dopamine system, which is suspected to result in reduced dopamine activity.
  2. Sitting too long. This can happen on a long flight or when seated too long in a theater or sports arena. Try getting up periodically to walk around.
  3. Changes in the body’s dopaminergic system. The chemical dopamine plays an important role in motor control.
  4. Altered sleep cycles. Keeping to a regular sleep-wake schedule can help.
  5. Alcohol and caffeine. Both can make it difficult to sleep. Try to avoid them close to bedtime.
  6. Antihistamines. Over-the-counter medications, like Benadryl and pseudoephedrine, can block dopamine. Your primary care provider can suggest something else for congestion.
  7. Medications prescribed for depression. Options like Remeron, Paxil, Prozac, Celexa, Cymbalta can worsen RLS. Ask your primary care provider for another option.
  8. Other neurologic conditions. The uncontrollable muscle movements of RLS can also indicate something more serious, he adds.

“Restless Leg Syndrome can be associated with renal failure, neuropathy, spinal cord injury, pregnancy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Because of these associations, we conduct different tests to see if there’s a related medical condition or trigger,” Dr. Lahrmann says.

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You can treat restless leg syndrome with medication or lifestyle changes.

In addition to avoiding known triggers, Dr. Lahrmann says medication generally helps control symptoms of RLS. In addition, treatment of associated medical conditions like iron deficiency can help.

Non-medication strategies for controlling RLS include:

  1. Increasing exercise frequency
  2. Doing mental alerting activities
  3. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  4. Trying yoga or acupuncture

Increased exercise, stretching and yoga, Dr. Lahrmann says, help increase endorphins and blood flow to the legs, both of which can play a role in pain and RLS relief.

“The goals of therapy are to reduce or eliminate symptoms and improve daytime function, sleep and quality of life,” he adds.