How to Relieve Restless Legs Symptoms While Flying on a Plane

Distracting Activities and Medications May Help

Legs stretched on a plane
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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) can be especially intense during prolonged sitting, especially while flying on a plane. What is the best way to relieve RLS symptoms on flights? Learn how to relieve restless legs symptoms while flying, including choosing a seat as well as the use of distracting activities, gentle exercise, and prescription medications.

Situations When Restless Legs Symptoms Worsen

Restless legs syndrome is characterized by an uncomfortable sensation that typically affects the legs associated with an urge to move. It worsens in the evening or at night, especially during inactivity such as prolonged sitting or when lying down. Movement relieves the associated discomfort.

Given that prolonged sitting worsens the symptoms, it is little surprise that RLS can become more problematic on long flights. It may also manifest during extended trips via car, bus, or train. The longer the sedentary activity lasts, the more intense the discomfort may become. RLS may also worsen when sitting in a theater or even during a prolonged business meeting. These periods of inactivity may make the symptoms intolerable. When feeling confined, the symptoms may become worse. What can be done about it?

How to Relieve RLS Symptoms While Flying on a Plane

Beyond avoiding the triggers and situations where your symptoms have previously worsened, there are a few other interventions that may prove to be helpful. Try to get an aisle seat if possible as a sense of confinement can often exacerbate the symptoms. If you need to get up and walk it off, this will also be easier if you are adjacent to the aisle. Activities that are mentally distracting may also help, as can gentle exercises and the use of prescription medications as needed.

If possible, try to schedule your flight at a time when you are less likely to experience your RLS symptoms. It may be helpful to avoid flights in the evening or night, as these are times when the condition is expected to be worse.

When you are on the trip, try to engage in activities that are mentally distracting. Typically this requires more than reading or watching a movie. You will want to be more mentally engaged. Try to select an activity that requires concentration or problem-solving. Many people find it helpful to work on crossword or sudoku puzzles. Similarly, other games on your smartphone may engage your mind and distract you from the symptoms.

If the uncomfortable or restless symptoms start to occur, you may find that it is helpful to move your body to obtain relief. You may need to get up from your seat and walk in the aisle of the plane. Take a trip to the lavatory. Stretching may also alleviate the symptoms. It may help to rub your leg or even tap your foot.

In some cases, it can be worthwhile to plan ahead for your trip with your sleep doctor. There are certain medications that can be used as needed for occasions when your restless legs are apt to worsen. These may include gabapentin or opioid medications.

In general, it is also helpful to ensure that your baseline symptoms are optimally controlled. By keeping symptoms in check, you will be less likely to experience flare-ups during situations such as flying. It may be necessary to take an iron supplement if you have an iron deficiency, as demonstrated by a low ferritin level. First-line medications such as Mirapex and Requip may also help you to keep your symptoms in check.

In addition, there are certain medications that work well around the clock for RLS. These 24-hour medications may help to even out the benefits and prevent flares, even those that occur in specific situations. Some of the prescription medications in this category include the Neupro patch or the extended-release version of gabapentin called Horizant.

A Word from Verywell

If you have restless legs syndrome, there is no reason to dread taking a prolonged flight or trip. Careful planning and a conversation with your doctor can ensure that you are able to travel comfortably, without fear of RLS leading to unnecessary discomfort. If you are already in the midst of your trip, you have other options available while you travel to distract yourself and relieve the symptoms that do occur.

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Article Sources

  • Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 6th edition, 2017.