I can’t help but shake a leg every day and I don’t mean dancing. When I sit down or lie down, I feel an uncontrollable urge to move my legs. They bounce for hours on end and most of the time I don’t even notice it. When I do, I sometimes try to stop in case it’s annoying others around me, but that just makes me feel uncomfortable. I decided to find what’s causing all this bothersome bouncing.
Photo by Allan Doyle.
What Might Be Causing the Bouncing
Basically, as therapist Cheryl Hassan explains at Quora, it’s often a self-soothing or coping activity people do when they feel anxious and their mind is busy doing something else. So, if you only find yourself fidgeting on rare occasion, it’s probably just a little nervous energy being expelled so you can feel better.
However, if it happens to you all the time — this is something I do almost every time I’m stationary — it’s more likely a mild disorder known as “restless legs syndrome” (RLS). People with RLS feel an uncomfortable sensation in their legs (or sometimes their arms) when they don’t move, especially at night.
Fidgeting relieves that discomfort, so as Richard P. Allen, an expert on restless legs syndrome at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, explains, those with RLS want to move constantly:
“People with this condition feel they just absolutely have to move their legs. Their legs feel uncomfortable or even painful unless they move them. When it’s extreme, patients with this condition can be sitting — in a meeting, in a conversation, watching TV — and they have to keep moving their legs, which could be very disturbing to themselves and to other people.”
While I sit, my legs bounce like I’m playing drums for a high-BPM club banger; and when I’m in bed, my legs shift back and forth like I’m treading water in an ocean of sheets. Most RLS is fairly mild, though (like mine) and doesn’t affect many aspects of people’s lives, but for those with extreme cases it can hurt their chances of ever getting a decent night’s rest.
Generally, about one in 20 people have RLS, it’s twice as common in women than in men, and their are two main types of the disorder. The first and most common type is early-onset RLS which starts before age 45 and gradually worsens over time. Late-onset RLS kicks in after age 45 and comes on suddenly, but doesn’t get any worse over time.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes suggests (part of the National Institute of Health, or NIH) there are many potential causes of the disorder, it’s usually passed down genetically, and there is no known cure.
For example, I know I got my RLS from my mother and it’s usually worsened by too little movement (I notice it’s less of an issue when I exercise more regularly), too much caffeine (I drink way too much coffee), and possibly an occasional iron deficiency. Fortunately, there are some minor perks to constant fidgeting, like burning a few extra calories every day.
How to Stop the Bouncing
If you think you have RLS and it’s harming your sleep, or getting painful instead of just uncomfortable, you should see a doctor about it. There is no cure, but there are plenty of things medical professionals can do to mitigate the affects of the disorder. But if your RLS is just a mild nuisance, there are some simple preventative measures you can take and other tricks to help keep it under control.
The NIH suggests some simple lifestyle changes, like avoiding or decreasing alcohol or tobacco use, maintaining a regular sleep pattern, and exercising a few times per week. You can also try leg-stretching exercises, hot or cold baths, massaging your legs, using heat or cold packs on your legs, or even focusing your mind on mentally challenging tasks, like a crossword puzzle.
Additionally, try to plan around your uncontrollable desire to fidget, shake, and bounce. Schedule car trips, plane travel, and movies when your symptoms are less severe (usually earlier in the day), give yourself plenty of walking and stretching breaks and pick aisle seats at theatres and on planes or trains so you can easily get up to move around.
Lastly, if you want to catch yourself and try to stop your leg bouncing, Raymond Miltenberger, Ph.D., recommends you put some loose change or keys in your pocket. As soon as you hear that jingle-janglin’, cross your legs, hook your foot around a chair, or stand up and let the urge pass.