Treating restless legs syndrome 

Mild restless legs syndrome that isn't linked to an underlying health condition can be managed with just a few lifestyle changes.

If symptoms are more severe, medication may be needed.

Restless legs syndrome caused by an underlying health condition can often be cured by treating that condition. For example, iron deficiency anaemia can be treated by taking iron supplements.

If it's associated with pregnancy, it usually disappears on its own within four weeks of the birth.

Lifestyle changes

A number of lifestyle changes may be enough to ease the symptoms of restless legs syndrome. These include:

  • avoiding stimulants in the evening – such as caffeine, tobacco and alcohol
  • not smoking – read more about quitting smoking
  • taking regular daily exercise – but avoid exercising near bedtime
  • practising good sleep habits – for example, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, not napping during the day, taking time to relax before going to bed, and avoiding caffeine close to bedtime
  • avoiding medicines that trigger the symptoms or make them worse – if you think medication is causing your symptoms, continue to take it and make an appointment to see your GP

During an episode of restless legs syndrome, the following measures may help relieve your symptoms:

  • massaging your legs
  • taking a hot bath in the evening
  • applying a hot or cold compress to your leg muscles
  • doing activities that distract your mind, such as reading or watching television
  • relaxation exercises, such as yoga or tai chi
  • walking and stretching

A small medical trial carried out in 2011 found a type of osteopathic exercise technique called positional release manipulation could be of benefit to people with restless legs syndrome. It involves holding different parts of the body in positions found to reduce feelings of pain and discomfort.


Dopamine agonists

Dopamine agonists may be recommended if you're experiencing frequent symptoms of restless legs syndrome. They work by increasing dopamine levels, which are often low.

Dopamine agonists that may be recommended include:

  • ropinirole 
  • pramipexole 
  • rotigotine skin patch

These medications can occasionally make you feel sleepy, so you should be cautious when driving or using tools or machinery after taking them. Other possible side effects can include nausea, dizziness and headaches.

If you experience nausea while taking a dopamine agonist, you may be given medication to help with this (antiemitic medication).

Impulse control disorder (ICD) is a less common side effect sometimes associated with dopamine agonists.

People with ICD are unable to resist the urge to do something harmful to themselves or others. For example, this could be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, or sex (hypersexuality).

However, the urges associated with ICD will subside once treatment with the dopamine agonist is stopped.


A mild opiate-based painkiller, such as codeine or tramadol, may be prescribed to relieve pain associated with restless legs syndrome.

Gabapentin and pregabalin are also sometimes prescribed to help relieve painful symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Side effects of these medications include dizziness, tiredness and headaches.

Aiding sleep

If restless legs syndrome is disrupting your sleep, a short-term course of medication may be recommended to help you sleep.

These types of medication are known as hypnotics, and include temazepam and loprazolam. Hypnotics are usually only recommended for short-term use (typically no longer than a week).

You may find you still feel sleepy or "hungover" the morning after taking your medication. 


Levodopa may be recommended if you only have occasional symptoms of restless legs syndrome. This is because if you took levodopa every day, there's a high risk it would actually make your symptoms worse.

Levodopa is available in tablet or liquid form, and you should take it once you feel the symptoms of restless legs syndrome coming on.

The medication will make you feel very sleepy (often suddenly), so you should never drive or use tools or machinery after taking levodopa.

Cardiovascular diseases

Recent research found people with restless legs syndrome may be up to twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, such as coronary heart disease or stroke, compared with people who do not have the syndrome.

This risk is thought to be greatest in people with frequent or severe symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

The exact reason for the increased risk is unclear, but it may be that the rapid leg movements are associated with an increased heart rate and blood pressure. Sleep problems have also been linked to cardiovascular disease.

To reduce this risk, you should exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weightgive up smoking if you smoke, and eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Read more about preventing cardiovascular disease.

Page last reviewed: 02/09/2015

Next review due: 02/09/2017