Alternative Therapies for RLS
The itching, creeping, crawling, tingling, or burning sensations and the urge to move that come with restless legs syndrome (RLS) can have you searching for relief. Although painkillers and other medications are often effective in alleviating RLS symptoms, you may be looking for more options. The good news is that a number of alternative RLS remedies, used alone or in combination with medication and healthy lifestyle habits, could help alleviate your RLS symptoms with few or no side effects and a small price tag.
Conventional RLS Therapy
For those with mild or sporadic RLS symptoms, certain lifestyle changes may be enough to ease symptoms. Physical activity and exercise have long been alternatives to drugs for people with RLS. In fact, one study suggests that regular exercise significantly reduces the severity of RLS symptoms. The research, published in theJournal of the American Board of Family Medicine,revealed that lower-body resistance exercises performed three times a week in addition to 30 minutes of aerobic activity eased RLS symptoms after 12 weeks.
If your RLS is the result of a nutritional deficiency, like a low level of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid, your doctor may recommend certain foods or supplements to meet your dietary needs and improve your RLS symptoms.
In more extreme cases, pain medications and prescription drugs are often effective for people with RLS. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options and possible side effects.
Alternative Therapies for RLS
But what if conventional ways to treat RLS aren't enough? Growing evidence suggests that alternative remedies may be effective in helping to treat RLS, according to research published in the journalNeuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.These therapies are diverse and work in very different ways, according to the authors of this review. Some boost blood flow to the legs. Others produce endorphins to alleviate pain or increase levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which helps ensure smooth, purposeful movement. Although they’re different, research shows that these various alternative RLS therapies, used alone or in combination with conventional treatments, may provide some relief for symptoms of RLS:
- Acupuncture.This hallmark of traditional Chinese medicine has been used for thousands of years to prevent and treat disease. Acupuncture applies needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments to specific places on the skin. Research involving several different types of acupuncture suggests this needle-based therapy may help relieve RLS. Although there isn’t enough research to confirm that acupuncture effectively treats the condition, it may work better than less effective treatments or no treatment at all.
- Massage.Massage therapy targeting the lower body could also help reduce symptoms of RLS. Although people with RLS have reported that they find massage beneficial, there is little study-based evidence on the effects of massage to treat RLS.
- Near-infrared light (NIR) therapy.NIR light has been used to treat nerve damage (neuropathy) by increasing sensation and decreasing pain. More recently, it’s also been used to reduce symptoms of RLS. Research shows that this reduction in symptoms could last for up to two weeks after treatment.
- Distraction.Good old-fashioned distraction may be one way to treat RLS symptoms. A study published inNeuropsychiatric Disease and Treatmentsuggested that reading, stretching, rubbing your legs, or taking a bath could help when RLS symptoms flare. Other mental activities, such as card games or computer work, have also been effective in easing discomfort associated with RLS.
Bottom Line: It Can't Hurt to Try
It's likely that a combination of treatments is the best solution for most people with RLS. Although acupuncture and massage haven’t been scientifically proven to be effective in the treatment of RLS, they could have some benefit, says Ihtsham Haq, MD, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. As long as an alternative therapy doesn't hurt a person or his or her pocketbook, there’s no harm in trying, he says. "Acupuncture isn’t a known treatment for RLS, but it’s great for pain," Dr. Haq adds. "Massage is also relatively cheap, and people with RLS have good reason to try it.”
The power of the placebo also shouldn't be underestimated, Haq explains. An analysis of the placebo effect — a conscious expectation that a treatment will work — shows that, on average, more than one-third of people with RLS experienced a major improvement in their symptoms while receiving placebo treatment.
"The placebo effect is often quite strong," Haq says.
If you’re considering an alternative or complementary therapy to treat RLS, talk to your doctor first. Together, you can find the right treatment plan for you.
Video: Restless Leg Syndrome | RLS Symptoms and Treatment
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