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Fidgeting is making small movements with your body, usually your hands and feet. It’s associated with not paying attention.

Fidgeting often reflects discomfort and restlessness. For example, if you’ve been listening to a lecture for a long time, you may find yourself tapping your pencil.

Fidgeting can increase your physiological arousal and help you feel more alert. The physical activity of fidgeting can provide a temporary distraction from whatever activity you’re doing.

Some scientists argue that the "mental break" fidgeting provides is actually your body’s way of trying to stay focused on the task at hand. However, other studies suggest that a fidgeting body simply reflects a wandering mind.

Stress can also cause fidgeting. In some cases, fidgeting can relieve feelings of stress.

What are the symptoms of fidgeting?

Signs of mild fidgeting can include movements of the head, limbs, and body. Common types of fidgeting include:

  • tapping your foot, your fingernails, or a pencil
  • blinking your eyes
  • shifting your weight
  • folding and unfolding your arms
  • crossing and uncrossing your legs

If your fidgeting is disrupting your ability to perform your daily routine, sleep at night, or manage at school or work, you should see a doctor.

What are the causes of fidgeting?

Mild fidgeting appears to be caused by inattention. Serious fidgeting can be caused by conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and restless leg syndrome (RLS).

Fidgeting and ADHD

There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive, and combined. Hyperactive and combined ADHD may produce the following behaviors:

  • fidgeting and squirming
  • difficulty with quiet activities
  • excessive talking
  • interrupting others often

These symptoms are often typical of children. You should see a doctor if these symptoms are interfering with your child’s social or academic functioning.

ADHD can be difficult to diagnose in adults because many of the symptoms are similar to mental disorders such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression. If you are experiencing the following symptoms, you may want to consult a doctor:

  • restlessness
  • mood swings
  • impatience
  • difficulty maintaining relationships
  • difficulty finishing tasks
  • difficult concentrating

There is no single cause of ADHD. The disorder is present at birth and isn’t caused by environmental factors. Risk factors include:

  • genetics
  • low birth weight
  • head injury
  • brain infection
  • iron deficiency
  • exposure to lead, alcohol, tobacco, or cocaine before birth

Fidgeting and RLS

Fidgeting at night can be a symptom of RLS. This is a neurological disorder that causes an uncomfortable feeling in your legs and a strong desire to move them. Symptoms usually happen at night during sleep or when you are trying to relax. It’s estimated that about five to 10 percent of the population has RLS. You should talk to your doctor if RLS is seriously impacting your sleep.

The cause of RLS is not known. But RLS can be triggered by long periods of inactivity such as a long car trip, a long distance flight, or a long movie.

How can fidgeting be treated?

Understanding the cause of your fidgeting may help you treat its symptoms. If you know that you are prone to mild fidgeting, try doing activities that are more engaging.

More severe fidgeting caused by ADHD can be treated with prescription drugs and counseling. A doctor can diagnose your ADHD through medical, educational, and psychological evaluations.

Psychostimulant drugs like methylphenidate are often prescribed to manage ADHD. Their side effects can include:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Depression, sadness, or anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Increase in blood pressure

Doctors may also prescribe antidepressants or antianxiety drugs. Sometimes your doctor may recommend a combination of medications. Your ADHD can also be managed with counseling. A counselor can help you develop skills to cope with the symptoms of ADHD.

Severe fidgeting caused by RLS can be treated with prescription medicines. You can also try managing your RLS with the following techniques:

  • take a warm shower or bath before bedtime
  • try a mindful activity before bedtime such as reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle
  • take a quick walk before bed
  • try lightly massaging your legs before you sleep

What is the outlook for fidgeting?

Mild fidgeting is not life threatening. Your fidgeting may impact the way that others view you because they may assume that you are not paying attention. If you are concerned about the impact fidgeting is having on your life, you should consult a doctor or seek counseling.

Serious fidgeting caused by ADHD and RLS can be managed with proper treatment.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Emma Nicholls
Medically reviewed on: Nov 10, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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