Traveling With Restless Legs Syndrome

Distracting activities and medications may help

Legs stretched on a plane
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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) makes your legs feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, coupled with an urge to move them. This problem can be worse when you sit for a long time—such as when you're flying in an airplane, or traveling by car, bus, or train. You might worry about how this symptom will impact your trip, especially if you're traveling at night, when symptoms tend to be worse.

The longer any sedentary activity lasts, the more intense the discomfort in your legs may become. RLS can also worsen when sitting in a theater or even during a prolonged business meeting. When you feel confined, the symptoms may become worse, or at least more of a problem.

RLS Symptom Relief for Traveling 

A few strategic interventions may prove helpful when it comes to keeping RLS in check while you travel.

Avoid Triggers

While certain triggers, like being sedentary and time of day, are common among people with this condition, many people also have less common triggers such as alcohol or caffeine.

Whatever your personal symptom triggers are, know them and avoid them as much as possible. For example, if alcohol tends to rev up your symptoms, as tempting as it may be, don't indulge in a few drinks during your trip—especially not while you're on the plane or while you kill time in an airport.

Schedule Strategically

Whenever possible, avoid traveling at night. Choosing an early flight or other departure time is optimal, since your symptoms are likely to be worse in the evening or at night. That's true of a relatively short trip, anyway.

If it's a long trip, you may not be able to avoid nighttime travel. It may then become important to consider spreading out potential triggers.

For example, nighttime is one trigger and being sedentary for long periods is another. If you've been flying for eight hours and then it gets late, you've suddenly got two triggers combining. In that case, it might be best to board the plane at night, when you're fresh, so you have less working against you.

Choose the Right Seat

Whenever possible on a plane, train, or bus, try to get an aisle seat. That's because a sense of confinement can often exacerbate RLS symptoms.

Being on the aisle also means it's easier for you stretch your legs, or to get up and move around because you don't have to squeeze past someone else to do it (especially if they're asleep! That's another reason you may want to choose an early flight.)

Medications

The better controlled your condition is at home, the better it's likely to be while sitting still for a long time during travel. If your symptoms aren't well controlled or you're concerned about having a flare up during your trip, talk to your doctor about medications such as Mirapex, Requip, Neurontin (gabapentin), or opioids.

If you'll be crossing several time zones, you may want to switch to a 24-hour medication in order to even out the benefit and prevent flares. These include the Neupro patch or Horizant, which is an extended-release version of gabapentin.

If you have an iron deficiency, which your doctor can test you for, your RLS may improve when you take an iron supplement.

And whatever you do, don't forget to pack your meds! Make sure you have enough to get you through the entire trip. You may need to talk to your doctor about getting early refills.

Distracting Activities

During sedentary travel, try to engage in activities that are mentally distracting. Typically, this requires more than reading or watching a movie.

Try to select an activity that requires concentration or problem-solving. Many people find it helpful to work on crosswords or Sudoku puzzles. Other games on your smartphone also may engage your mind and distract you from the symptoms.

Having a snack and listening to music can also help keep your brain busy.

Keep Moving

Look for ways to keep from sitting still for too long. On a plane, bus, or train, try to get up regularly and walk a little, especially if you start having those nasty sensations. If you're traveling by car, make frequent stops.

Stretch out when you can, either during stops or in the aisle. You may be able to find simple stretches that you can even do while seated.

Experiment to see if rubbing your leg or a simple movement like tapping your foot helps prevent or alleviate symptoms.

A Word from Verywell

If you have restless legs syndrome, you don't have 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 restless legs syndrome leading to unnecessary discomfort. If you don't have time to try new medications or are already in the midst of your trip, you have other options available while you travel, so keep your brain distracted and move as much as you can to 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.