Two nights ago, I got a very bad leg cramp while lying in bed.
Perhaps it was because of dehydration from a recent hot yoga session, or just too much exertion at the gym, but I abruptly and unpleasantly awoke to horrible cramps in both my hamstrings and calves.
For what seemed like forever, I writhed in discomfort and clenched my teeth as I tried to relax and somehow massage away the cramps on both legs. Finally, I alleviated the cramps, got out of bed, and drank an enormous glass of water with a few teaspoons of sea salt. But the next morning, I was still sore and tired from the intense spasms.
Believe it or not, some people deal with these types of frustrating cramps, spasms, and twitches nearly every night. They are often seized by an uncontrollable urge to move their legs, their leg muscles actually twitch or jerk, and they experience the strange sensation of something squirming or wiggling under their skin. This is called Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and it is a neurological disorder that affects as many as 12 million people in America alone!
The restless symptoms typically strike when you're lying in bed at night, but in more serious cases, they can also flare up in the daytime, such as when you're sitting for a long period of time. You often experience a feeling of tingling, aching, itching, or tugging deep beneath the skin of your lower legs -- and sometimes even in the thighs, feet, hands, and arms too.
Medical research still indicates that this is a condition shrouded in mystery -- and it seems to be accompanied by lots of other co-factors, such as heart, lung, and kidney disorders, circulatory problems, arthritis, dietary deficiencies (such as magnesium) or dietary excesses (such as caffeine).
So what can you do about RLS? Here are 10 tips:
1. Move. Easy to moderate exercise can help alleviate restless legs, but excessive exercise with lots of sweating and hard muscle contractions may actually aggravate symptoms. For example, a morning weight training session or an evening post-dinner brisk walk at a moderate pace can help. If you're going to do harder exercise than that, you may want to get it done several hours before you go to sleep.
2. Limit caffeine intake. Coffee, tea, energy drinks, chocolate, sodas, and even popular exercise and sports supplements and over-the-counter medications can all contain caffeine and may aggravate or cause RLS. Check the label, and try cutting these substances out of your diet or substituting decaffeinated versions -- especially after noon. Ideally, you should also avoid smoking and tobacco, which contains another caffeine-like RLS culprit -- the central nervous system stimulant nicotine.
3. Stay hydrated. RLS can be aggravated by dehydration from a lack of water intake. So in addition to avoiding diuretics such as the caffeine sources listed above, you may also want to avoid nighttime alcohol intake, and drink liberal amounts of sparkling water, filtered water, or decaffeinated teas throughout the day.
4. Use hot-cold contrast therapy. Increasing blood flow to your legs via hot-cold contrast therapy may also help with Restless Legs Syndrome symptoms. Sometime in the 2-3 hours before bed, try a 5 minute shower alternating 20 seconds of cold water followed by 10 seconds of warm water. Once you've finished the hot-cold contrast, stand under the warm water for another couple of minutes to relax your nervous system.
5. Reduce stress. High levels of chronic daily stress can cause headaches, jaw tightness, shoulder tightness, neck pain, and of course, restless legs. I'd highly recommend you review my article Top 7 Ways to Reduce Stress, which includes techniques such as breathing, meditation, yoga and simply not working too late into the night or working from your computer while in bed.
6. Increase electrolyte intake. Cramping can be caused by chronic depletion of important minerals such as iron, calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, or any of the other 80 minerals that are crucial to muscle function and relaxation. While you shouldn't necessarily slam a sugary commercial electrolyte drink every day, you should definitely consider using natural electrolyte and mineral sources, such as mineral enriched water, trace liquid minerals, Himalayan sea salts, fruits and vegetables grown in organic, mineral rich soil and iron rich foods such as red meat and spinach. Many sports companies now make naturally flavored effervescent electrolyte tablets that can easily be dissolved in a daily glass of water, without all the sugar from an actual electrolyte drink.
7. Apply transdermal magnesium. Magnesium can be absorbed through your skin and help to displace the calcium ions that may cause muscle cramping and restlessness. My two favorite ways to use magnesium are to A) use a topical magnesium lotion and B) to do a magnesium salts soak, which is very similar to an Epsom salts bath. You can read more about these two strategies here.
8. Stretch. Tight muscles and tight fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds groups of muscle) may also contribute to cramping and restless legs. In addition to deep tissue massage, I'd recommend you begin each day with a light morning stretch routine, implement a handful of short or long yoga sessions each week, or simply going out of you way before bed at night to stretch your feet and stretch your calves -- which can easily be accomplished by simply putting your feet against the wall and leaning into them with your ankles bent so that your toes are pointing up. You'll get a better stretch if you do this one leg at a time.
9. Wear compression clothing. There are a variety of full leg and also calf length compression socks that you can find, made by companies such as Under Armor, Skins, and 110 percent Compression -- or you can simply go to your local medical supplies store and grab a generic version. Pull these on before bed and you may notice less propensity for cramping, and your legs may also feel less "heavy" when you wake up in the morning. Ideally, you should look for a gradated compression sock, which actually helps cardiovascular blood flow from your lower limbs to your upper limbs.
10. Try alternative therapies. Acupuncture may help relieve your symptoms of RLS. In addition, deep tissue massage therapy that targets the lower body, hips, and legs could also help. And if you can't arrange or afford acupuncture and massage, then try an acupuncture mat or a foam roller.
Ultimately, you may find that a combination of the tips listed above works best, and a process of trial and error may be necessary for you to find out what actually gets ride of your RLS. If you have more questions or comments about how to improve your Restless Leg Syndrome symptoms or other RLS tips, then leave your thoughts below.