Got Restless Legs? Try Foam Rolling!

Are you one of the millions of Americans kept awake at night by restless legs?

I feel your pain. I, too, am one of these people.

Restless leg syndrome is a medical condition in which you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. It’s a frustrating, terribly uncomfortable sensation that makes you feel as if something in your lower extremities is wrong. Your legs won’t stay still. They want to move and jerk. Moving is the only thing that helps to get rid of the uncomfortable, jittery feeling, but the relief is only temporary (in terms of seconds). When you suffer from restless leg syndrome, not only do you suffer physically, but you also suffer mentally, because you know that something is not working properly within the mind-body connection.

You wonder, “Why do my legs feel like this?!!”  You want to stop moving your legs, but the more you keep them still, the more they throb, ache or itch. The sensations are hard to describe but some use the analogy of feeling like electricity is flowing through your legs, or a terrible itch, or deep aching. Nighttime is your enemy. Your sleep is completely disrupted. And you dread laying down and going to bed.

 

Can't sleep

I began suffering from restless leg syndrome (specifically in my calves) in my late 20’s, despite being active and exercising on a regular basis. Over time, I started to believe that my nightly leg movements were hereditary, since my dad and brother (who are both “gifted” with large calves, like myself) were affected by it. (Restless leg syndrome does tend to run in families.) My calves were always tight and sore, with nighttime bringing on the restlessness.

Why Do My Legs Ache?

I wanted to know why I was suffering from restless legs and initially pointed the finger to my arduous weightlifting of my calf muscles. Initially, I thought that my calves were getting too big since I lifted rather heavy. I hypothesized that because my calves were getting bigger and stronger, it created a build up of pressure within the muscle’s sheath’s firm lining. However, my calf muscles continued to ache whether I worked out or not, especially the deep ones.

I started to research restless leg syndrome, trying to gather all the information I could. I learned that those suffering from restless legs may have a magnesium deficiency.  Magnesium regulates muscle function and allows muscles to relax.  It also works as a calcium blocker. Calcium does the opposite of what magnesium does; calcium activates nerves and triggers muscle contractions. The lack of adequate magnesium allows the calcium to keep triggering and contracting the muscles. Taking magnesium supplements as a natural remedy can help by blocking calcium and relaxing your muscles.

foam rolling

After taking the supplements for a couple of weeks, my restless legs syndrome did improve slightly, but it still affected me. Usually, people with restless legs see physicians, get prescriptions for restless legs, take hot baths, or get regular massage. Deep tissue massage is ideal in that it breaks up knots, tension, and adhesions in the muscle. While deep tissue massage is incredibly beneficial, many people (including myself), do not have the time or money for regular massage.

However, the best treatment I’ve found that relieves my restless legs (with minimal cost) is foam rolling.

How Foam Rolling Works

A few years ago, I discovered foam rolling. This has truly alleviated my restless legs and is the best remedy that I’ve found. Foam rolling works because it provides myofascial release.

What exactly is myofascial release?

“Myo” represents muscle and “fascial” is for fascia, the sheath lining that covers each and every muscle of the body. Not only does it cover the entire muscle, but it covers each bundle of muscle fibers and each individual muscle fiber. (That’s a LOT of fascia!) Fascia gives muscle its shape and because of this, it’s rather firm.

muscle diagram
This image shows the composition of muscles. Notice the sheath around the one muscle fiber, then the bundle, then the large epimysium sheath over the whole muscle. The epimysium, perimysium, and endomysium are all forms of fascia, dense connective tissues.

 

When muscles and connective tissues are injured, scar tissue or adhesions are formed. If you’re a regular athlete and/or frequently injured, you may have layers and layers of these adhesions. Adhesions limit flexibility and motion in your body, causing stiffness and pain. They can also entrap nerves causing tingling and pain. In addition to injury, adhesions can form from inactivity, inflammation, and disease. When you have these adhesions, it’s akin to tangled fibers, all sticking to each other, binding up, and losing elasticity. Your muscles will feel tight, constricted, and likely sore, especially if nerves are affected.

Using a foam roller (or getting a deep tissue massage) breaks up these adhesions, loosens tight fascia, and allows the muscles to separate, loosen, and relax. Nerves are no longer compressed and the muscle can return to its healthy form.

muscle injury
image courtesy of RobertsonFamilyChiro.com

 

How to Foam Roll

Foam rollers can be seen at gyms all around the country, but many people have not learned how to properly benefit from them. The back and forth rolling that is often seen can relieve muscle tension, but you can best alleviate any pain or tightness in your calves by starting at the ankle and slowly rolling upwards, moving your leg from side to side. Find a knot? Stop and stay on it. As painful as it can be, keep pressure on the knot as long as possible until the muscle loosens and relaxes. The photos below show you how to foam roll your calves from beginner (top) to intermediate (middle) to advanced (bottom).

foam rolling
Start foam rolling with your butt on the floor.

 

foam rolling
As you get better at foam rolling, you’ll need more pressure to find knots. Now you can lift your butt up to add more tension.
foam rolling
Once you’re a pro and want to get really deep into the calves, lift your butt off the ground and place one calf on top of the other for maximum pressure.

 

Foam rolling can be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be extremely painful. If your calves are tender with light foam rolling, that’s a sign that you likely have adhesions and/or tight fascia and need to do it more often. The more you foam roll, the less it will hurt (I promise!) and over time, it will get easier. Eventually, you may be able to work up to a foam roller with textured ridges like the RumbleRoller.  The RumbleRoller’s ridges are able to get in deep to break up adhesions and loosen your muscles.

foam rolling
The Rumble Roller, available at Amazon

You can find hundreds of articles and videos online on how to perform foam rolling if you’re completely new to the practice. You may find out that if you foam roll regularly, your calves (or thighs) will feel better and your restless legs will diminish. The foam roller will knead your muscles, loosen fibers, break up adhesions, and massage trigger points.

foam rolling
Be sure to buy or use a firm foam roller. Cheaper rollers are often made of softer foam, which doesn’t work as well.

 

I don’t foam roll on a regular basis, but I do when my calves are feeling tight. Ten minutes or so on a firm foam roller or RumbleRoller and my calves feel tenderized, relaxed, and just so much better. I’ve broken up layers and layers of knots and adhesions from years of running and exercising (and injuries). Nothing has relieved my restless leg syndrome like foam rolling.

Have you tried foam rolling for restless leg syndrome? Has it helped? I’d love to hear if it’s benefitted anyone else from the nightly trauma of restless legs. I hope it will help! Let me know in the comments.

Happy Rolling!

JulieFoam Rolling

sources: mayoclinic.org, healthline.com, self.com

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