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Quieting Restless Leg Syndrome: Caregiver Tips


Restless Leg Syndrome is usually diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and it affects an estimated 10 percent of older adults

Imagine settling down in bed for a good night’s sleep. Just as you start to doze off, you are awakened by restless, jittery sensations in your legs along with strong urges to move them. These feelings are so powerful, so uncomfortable and so irritating that you have to get up and walk around the bedroom until these unpleasant feelings finally disappear.

These odd sensations are a reality for many older adults, and are symptoms of a medical condition known as “restless legs syndrome” (RLS). This disorder is usually diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and it affects an estimated 10 percent of older adults. Many with the condition view their restless legs as nothing more than an annoyance, and neglect to tell their doctor about their discomfort and let it go untreated. For others, the condition may disappear for a time for no apparent reason only to recur a few months later. If we are a caregiver of a loved one with RLS, knowing more about the disorder can help us understand what they are going through and explore different ways to help them find relief.

Getting Acquainted with RLS

One symptom that may be more bothersome to individuals with RLS is a twitching feeling that can occur at almost any age, although people over 50 are most likely to suffer from RLS. The discomfort makes it almost impossible for those with restless legs—and their bed partners—to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, our loved one with RLS may spend much of the day feeling cranky, groggy or sleepy simply because they are unable to get a full night of uninterrupted sleep.

What sets off leg restlessness is not clear, and the causes of its disruptive symptoms have not yet been identified. However, some medical experts believe that a malfunctioning nervous system may be responsible for restless legs. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, restless legs have also been linked to:

  • Iron deficiencies
  • Deficiencies of certain vitamins, such as Vitamin B12
  • Folic acid deficiencies
  • Alcoholism
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney disorders

If a loved one complains about these symptoms, we should suggest that they make an appointment with their primary care physician to discuss these symptoms, and for a complete physical, which includes a check for iron or vitamin deficiencies that may be the cause of the disease.

RLS may also be genetic. Around 40 percent of those who suffer from restless leg syndrome report having a family history of the condition. 

Treating RLS

Although there is no cure for RLS, a variety of treatments and lifestyle changes are available to manage a loved ones restless legs and decrease their feelings of discomfort. We can work together with our loved one and their doctor to develop a plan to manage their RLS symptoms with appropriate medications and home remedies to relieve RLS discomforts, such as:

  • Ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Filling a bathtub with warm water for a loved one to soak in
  • Leg massages, which can often help quiet hyperactive muscles
  • Alternating warm packs with cool packs
  • Making sure a loved one’s bedroom is quiet, dark and comfortable
  • Encouraging a loved one to go to bed at the same time every night
  • Drinking herbal or decaffeinated tea or other caffeine-free warm drinks before bedtime
  • Asking a loved one’s doctor about adding dietary supplements such as iron, folic acid, vitamin B to help control restless legs 
  • Encouraging a loved one to stop smoking, as smoking can aggravate RLS symptoms
  • Helping a loved one stay active by working easy exercises into their daily routine. Before encouraging our loved one to engage in exercise, we should get approval from their doctor first. Activities to consider include:
    • Strolling around the block
    • Sweeping the kitchen floor
    • Gardening
    • Visiting friends
    • Doing yoga stretches
    • Meditating

Learning More About RLS

Most of us know very little about Restless Legs Syndrome until a family member, friend or relative are diagnosed with this disorder. To find out more about RLS, we can visit The Restless Legs Foundation, a non-profit organization offering current information about restless leg syndrome for people with this disease and their caregivers. 

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