December 13, 2017
Seated man holding his painful ankle
Ask the Experts

Foot Wraps for Restless Legs

by Berkeley Wellness  

Q: I heard about a special foot wrap that reduces symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Does it actually work?

A: It’s too soon to say. A study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in June 2016 offered very preliminary evidence that a foot wrap called Restiffic may have some benefit—but it was small and not well designed.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), which affects 5 to 10 percent of adults in the U.S., is a neurological disorder characterized by uncomfortable sensations—creeping, pulling, tugging, fidgeting, burning, even aching pain—deep inside the legs, often at night. There is no cure, and managing symptoms can be frustrating and futile.

For the study, 30 people with moderate to severe RLS were instructed to wear the adjustable wrap on each foot when symptoms occurred. The device puts targeted pressure on two muscles in the foot, the abductor hallucis and flexor hallucis brevis. Over the course of the eight-week trial, participants reported significant decreases in severity of symptoms, as well as improvements in sleep.

The researchers speculated that “pressure on the foot caused responses in the brain, which, in turn, relaxed the muscles in the leg, leading to a decrease in symptoms.” But among several big problems with the study, it had no control group to rule out a placebo effect, and it’s unknown if the results were due, at least in part, to natural waxing and waning of RLS symptoms.

In 2007, an even smaller study (10 people) from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, published in the journal Medicine, reported that a compression device (the type used to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis) similarly improved RLS symptoms and quality of life. It was used daily, starting at least one hour before the time when symptoms typically began.

Standard advice for coping with RLS includes reducing or avoiding caffeine and alcohol, avoiding nicotine, exercising regularly, massaging and stretching the legs, and using heat or cold. Treating an iron deficiency may also help. Several prescription medications are available, including ones that act on brain neurotransmitters, but they are often not effective and have a variety of side effects, including nausea, dizziness, and sleepiness.

Bottom line: We’re not impressed by the research (most of the “evidence” of benefit is from testimonials)—but, after checking with your doctor first, you can try some type of pressure or compression device if other remedies don’t help much and you don’t want to be on medication. Be warned, however, that Restiffic is available by prescription on the company’s website at a hefty price of $350 per pair. Less-costly compression socks and sleeves ($60 and under)—or even just support hose or an elastic (ACE) bandage—are perhaps worth trying first, especially considering that a placebo effect may be involved.