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Restless Arm Syndrome Physiotherapy

Restless arm syndrome refers to a specific and even peculiar problem in the central nervous system that causes abnormal movements and sensations in the arms.

Patients typically complain of strange sensations in the arms such as

  • crawling sensations
  • tingling sensations
  • involuntary jerky arm movements
  • an urge to move the arms
  • and unfortunately disturbed sleep

Symptoms may be "just" limited to the arms, or in some cases, it may also affect other parts of the body as well.

The Restless Arm Syndrome is related to the more popular known condition "Restless Leg Syndrome", but that's not entirely accurate.

A more accurate description is probably “restless limbs”, because it's not just legs that can be affected, but also other part of the limbs such as

  • legs
  • arm
  • shoulder
  • elbow
  • etc

Causes Of Restless Arm Syndrome

In many cases, there is no known direct or specific cause of restless arm syndrome. Researchers and the medical community think it may be due to:

1) Genetics

It is theorized that there is a familial link or relations in over 50% of cases of restless limbs.

It is an autosomal dominant condition meaning that if you suffer from it, there is a 50% chance you will pass it on to any child you have (depending which condition is more dominant).

2) Dopamine Imbalance

Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter that relays and passes messages between the brain and the nervous system which helps to control and co-ordinate movement. If our natural dopamine levels drop, it may cause muscle spasms or the arms to move involuntarily (to which we'd need to start on dopamine supplements to help with dopaminergic levels).

3) Underlying Health Condition

There are a number of medical conditions associated with restless arm syndrome including

  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Vitamin 12 deficiency
  • Fibromyalgia

4) Iron Deficiency Anaemia

Low levels of red blood cells results in reduced iron levels which leads to a drop in dopamine levels

5) Pregnancy

Statistics show that about or around 40% of pregnant women get symptoms of restless leg syndrome which may also cause or lead to restless symptoms in the arms.

It is most common in the third trimester but it's frustrating though no one knows why. Symptoms typically resolve naturally on its own within a few days or weeks of giving birth.

Potential Triggers

Triggers are things that don’t cause restless arm syndrome directly but can make symptoms worse. Triggers for restless arm and leg syndrome include:

1) Medications: such as anti-depressants, anti-histamines, antipsychotics and calcium channel blockers

2) Caffeine: people often find that consuming caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee or coca cola make their symptoms worse or more frequent

3) Lack of Exercise: being inactive and living a sedentary lifestyle contributes to restless arm syndrome (it is reported moreso in sedentary patients moreso than active patients)

4) Stress: stress and anxiety can trigger an attack of restless arm syndrome

Classification Types

Restless arm / leg syndrome can be categorised into two different types:


Also known as idiopathic restless limb syndrome which has no clear or known direct or indirect causes.

Typically, the condition develops slowly, with symptoms appearing before the age of 40 – 45 years.

There is usually a familial or genetic history.

Patients typically experience and report that their symptoms come and go, and although the symptoms may last a few months at a time, and the condition tends to get gradually worse (more frequent, lasting longer etc) with age and time.


These types are known as "secondary" restless limb syndrome and they usually develops suddenly, and often is associated with another medical condition or certain medications.

Symptoms tends to first appear over the age of 45 but do not worsen with time

Restless Arm or Leg Syndrome affects approximately 10% of the population and approximately one quarter of those sufferers (hence 2.5% of the population as a whole) will also be affected by restless arm syndrome symptoms.

Symptoms of Restless Arm Syndrome

Restless arm syndrome can have a variety of symptoms and can differ a lot from other patients with the same conditions in terms of severity, frequency, duration etc.

Symptoms may include:

1) Involuntary Arm Movements

Patients tend to experience sudden, jerky, uncontrollable movements in the arms, and in some case, other body parts as well, most commonly the legs

2) Odd Sensations

Patients with restless arm syndrome often report feeling strange sensations in their arms such as

  • tingling
  • burning
  • numbness
  • tickly
  • buzzing or
  • itching sensation or
  • like a creepy crawly crawling over you.

The strange sensations associated with restless limbs can also give you a strong intense desire and urge to want to move the affected arm or leg as quickly as you can.

3) Daily Pattern

Symptoms of restless limbs can be worse in the evenings and overnight or when resting or relaxing.

As a result, sleep is often affected. Some patients may get symptoms throughout the day, but they tend to be least or moreso in the mornings

4) Sleep Disturbance

Restless limb syndrome unfortunately will often affect sleep and sleep duration / quality.  

The strange sensations on involuntary arm movements can make it

  • difficult to get to sleep
  • difficult to reach deep sleep and
  • may / will wake you up

Then a vicious cycle starts to form - symptoms are often worse when patients are tired, but as a result it is harder to get a good nights sleep, so you get even more tired and the cycle continues.

4) Difficulty Sitting Still

People often find that their symptoms "happens, triggers or comes on" when they rest or sit still for long periods e.g.

  • on a car/train journey or
  • when watching television

5) Relief With Movement

Patients typically often find that

  • moving their arms
  • doing some simple exercises or
  • rubbing / massaging their affected arms

can help to reduce symptoms of restless arm syndrome

6) Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

Many patients with restless arm syndrome will experience restless limb movements at night.

This is where the arm jerks or twitches uncontrollably, for short bursts of time but repetitively (with some sort of pattern). These unfortunately tend to happen when you are asleep and may wake you and your partner up.

Patients can also get periodic limb movements when they are awake but this is less common.

Diagnosing Restless Limbs

There is no specific test for diagnosis restless limb syndrome and it can take a long time to get a definitive diagnosis.

Your doctor will usually run various tests to rule out other conditions such as

  • vitamin deficiency or
  • other neurological conditions

They will want to get a clear picture of your symptoms including

  • frequency
  • duration
  • daily pattern and
  • intensity

The National Institute for Neurological Disorders & Stroke highlight four criteria for diagnosing restless limb syndrome:

  1. Symptoms worse at night with minimal or no symptoms in the morning
  2. A strong, often overwhelming need to move the affected body parts and limb(s)
  3. Sensory symptoms that are triggered by rest, relaxation or sleep, and
  4. Sensory symptoms that ease with movement – symptom relief persists as long as the limb is kept moving

If you are diagnosed with restless arm syndrome, you should have your iron levels checked.

what are your Treatment Options if you have restless arm syndrome?

Treatment for restless arm syndrome looks to reduce the symptoms of the condition such as the intensity and/or frequency of symptoms, including how much sleep is affected.

Treatment may include:

1) Medication

Drugs to help increase the levels of dopamine (known as dopaminergic agents) can be very effective and tend to be the tried first however we and patients must be extra cautious as medication long term can actually make symptoms worse.

Other medications that may be prescribed include

  • levodopa (for occasional symptoms)
  • opioids (such as codeine) and
  • anti-convulsants (such as gabapentin)

Beware, some medications can make the symptoms of restless limbs worse in some individuals including sedating anti-histamines, cold and ‘flu remedies, anti-depressants, antacids and tricyclic medications. 

2) Supplements

Supplements such as iron, magnesium and folate can help reduce symptoms, although they are only recommended if your levels are low –  please always always consult and check in with your doctor before taking any supplements.

3) Sleep Pattern

Having a regular sleep pattern can help with restless arm syndrome.

  • Do adopt good habits – try to go to bed at around the same time each evening and also get up at a consistent time in the mornings.
  • Allow yourself time to wind down in the evening.
  • Make sure your bed is for sleep only, not working or looking at screens.
  • Make sure the room is the right temperature – symptoms can be worse if you are too hot.
  • Symptoms are often worse when you are tired.

Some people find it helpful to keep a sleep diary.

4) Watch Your Intake

Cutting down your intake of

  • caffeine
  • alcohol and
  • tobacco / nicotine

will help reduce the symptoms of restless arm syndrome - definitely avoid them completely after 6pm

5) Exercise

Exercising regularly, but not excessive exercise during the day and some gentle yoga and stretching before you go to bed can help to reduce symptoms.

6) Movement

Moving the affected limb usually helps to relieve symptoms almost instantly, but symptoms may return quickly once you stop - we recommend that you instead:

  • take a short walk
  • do some gentle stretches

7) Massage

Massaging or rubbing the arms when symptoms of restless arm syndrome develop can help reduce symptoms. Regular deep tissue massage may help.

8) Treatment of Underlying Disease

If another medical condition is contributing to your restless arm syndrome, such as diabetes, then treating or keeping that condition controlled / in check will usually reduce symptoms of restless arm syndrome.

9) Use Hot or Cold

Some of our patients report that they discovered that applying heat (e.g. electrical heat pack) or cold therapy (e.g. ice) to their arms, and in some cases, alternating between the two helps to reduce their symptoms.

Ensure you do this safely - only use for ten minutes at a time and do not use if your sensation is compromised (eg cant feel cold or heat very well).

10) Bath/Shower

Some people find that having a warm or cool bath or shower before bed helps to relax their bodies and themselves - again, we recommend a gentle warm or gentle cool shower =)


Typically and unfortunately, symptoms of restless arm syndrome may gradually get worse over time although this is more common in the primary form (secondary forms can subside once the main causes or medications has been taken cared of).

Symptoms can often fluctuate and may disappear completely for periods but in most cases they will return after a few weeks or months. Please note that it is very important to rule out any underlying medical condition.

If you suspect you may be suffering from restless limbs, do see your doctor.


Patients may also receive the following physiotherapy treatment modalities: