Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is one of the least understood symptoms of menopause – and given how much education women get about menopause, that’s saying something.
I’ve talked about RLS before and how it has turned me into Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley most nights since I was a teenager. It is a complicated, little-understood syndrome that no one is quite sure about.
But despite this, time and time again on menopause forums, I see well-meaning women give advise about what “works”. Well, there is no one thing that works. Some people get relief from one thing, some from another.
Which is why I thought it would be handy to put together the best treatments for RLS in one handy guide. I’ve tried some, but not all.
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
To put it simply, RLS is the user-friendly name for Willis-Ekbom disease.
What? You want more?
Okay, then. Restless Legs Syndrome is both a sleep and a neurological sensory disorder, which means basically it effects your nervous system.
It causes uncomfortable sensations in your legs, but these differ from person to person. My sister, who developed RLS with the menopause (known as Secondary RLS), says it feels as if she’s drank too much Coca-Cola. For me, someone who has had RLS all my life (yup, Primary RLS), it feels like a burning ache deep inside the muscle.
It’s hard to explain it because it’s not a pain like someone sticking a needle in me. It’s more like a hot, pulsing ache that grows in intensity. It feels almost like an aching tickle. It’s not like any other pain I’ve had and I don’t even know if I can call it a pain. But it hurts. (You can see why my doctor loves me with descriptions like that.)
No matter when you have Primary or Secondary RLS, the only way you can get relief is by moving your legs. And that’s not always voluntary. It’ll kick out without you wanting to do it or without you being able to stop it. Even when you’re asleep (or trying to sleep).
What causes it?
That’s the million-dollar question. Nobody’s quite sure. Mine is genetic – my nana suffered – but it can be caused by other factors, such as:
- low levels of iron in the blood, which leads to a fall in dopamine (the chemical that carries signals between your brain cells)
- long-term health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis
- pregnancy (good news is, it usually stops about a month after you’ve given birth)
- some medications, such as antidepressants (so if your doctor has given you some for menopause, that could explain the RLS)
- being overweight
- too much smoking, caffeine or alcohol.
When do you get RLS?
Usually when you’re relaxing, so in bed or watching TV on the sofa. But it can also hit me in enclosed spaces while I’m travelling on a train, or a bus, or an airplane.
There’s no rhyme or reason about when it hits. I can do the same thing day after day and only be affected some times.
Does it only affect your legs?
Mostly. However, I’ve had “Restless Arms Syndrome” a couple of times. But usually it is just the legs – and it can be any part of them, from the thighs down to your feet.
So, how do you treat Restless Legs Syndrome?
Magnesium – this is the one that you will see mentioned over and over again on menopause Facebook groups.
Many people think Restless Legs Syndrome is simply a lack of magnesium or the body not using its stores correctly. But I’ve used different forms of magnesium over the years in an effort to help my RLS and it’s NEVER had any effect on me.
However, I know people for whom it’s helped a lot. Some take tablets, others use a magnesium spray (that just made me itchy). And while it didn’t work for me, it is the first thing I advise new sufferers to try because I know it has helped others.
But please, if you see me or anyone else talking about RLS who has suffered for many years, don’t prescribe magnesium as the wonder cure. I’m now at the stage where I’ll throw my laptop out the window if I’m RLS-plained once more that I simply “haven’t used enough”.
Trust me on this.
Exercise – yeah, I know. I sound like a broken record, but exercise can help with restless legs. A good, brisk walk for about 30 minutes three to four times a week can make the difference between sleeping well or performing the can-can each night.
Swimming is also a good one, as is yoga. I always swear by Chas Rough and his Yogamazing workouts. They’re short and leave you feeling amazing.
However, be wary if you exercise before you go to bed because that can make it worse. Similarly, don’t overdo your workout as that can also have a negative effect.
Sex – ha ha! That made you sit up, right? You weren’t expecting this to be on the list, were you?
And no, it’s not clickbait. Sex releases dopamine and some research shows that it can help RLS. And without getting too personal, I’m not disagreeing…
If you don’t have a partner, head off to Ann Summers. A report from 2011 found that going-it-alone also helped – one guy said that masturbating had given him complete relief from his Restless Legs Syndrome. It’s thought the dopamine gives enough relief to help you get to deep sleep.
As possible treatments go, it’s not a bad one.
Overhaul your lifestyle – if you think your RLS is caused by being overweight or drinking, then simply losing weight and cutting back on alcohol could do the trick.
Researchers have also found that people with RLS can be more likely to develop cardiovascular problems, so making sure you’re living as healthily as possible will be a double whammy.
Get a good sleep routine – make sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time and keep your room nice and dark and cool.
And put your phone and any electronic device away. After you’ve finished reading this, of course.
You can also read my tips on how to get to sleep for some more advice on how to get a good sleep regime.
Vitamin D – there is a school of thought that Vitamin D can help ease the symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome. A study from 2014 certainly found that people who had Vit-D deficiency and RLS and then took a Vitamin D supplement gained relief. So if you’re low on Vitamin D, get yourself to the health store.
Put a bar of soap in your bed – bit of an oddball this one. The theory is that if you put a bar of soap at the bottom of your bed, under your sheets, then it’ll stop your RLS. How? I have no idea whatsoever and it sounds nuts to me. I mean, there is no science to it and I can’t see any sense in it.
But when you’ve not slept in a week, you’ll try anything. If that works through a placebo effect – to be honest, I don’t mind. If it works, it works. I don’t think it will, tho…
Hog the cold spot – again, this has no science backing it, but I find getting my legs in the cold really helps. The National Sleep Foundation and also the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation (which is also a great source of help in general) both recommend hot and cold compresses to help.
Your GP – this one will work. Or it did for me.
I first went to a doctor when my RLS got so bad I hadn’t slept for two weeks. I had been prescribed sertraline and, a psychiatric nurse informed me, this can worsen symptoms.
My GP prescribed Ropirinole, which is also used to help people with Parkinson’s Disease. It took a little while to get the dosage right – I was a bit space monkey to begin with – but once we did, it was a miracle.
For people who don’t have it, Restless Legs Syndrome is a silly thing. But it can cause huge problems to sufferers and their partners. If you or anyone you know suffers, please share this story with them in the hope it can help or tell them to check out RLS-UK.
Have you suffered from RLS? Is there anything that helps you? Let me know in the comments below.
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