Periodic Leg Movements

Periodic leg movements are repetitive movements that occur about every 20 to 40 seconds in the lower limbs while a person is sleeping. These movements may be jerking, flailing and kicking motions, an upward flexing of the feet or brief twitches. The repetitive movement may last for a period of a few minutes to several hours.

Periodic leg movements are estimated to occur in approximately 4% of adults (aged 15–100), but it is more common in the elderly, especially females, with up to 11% experiencing symptoms. People who experience these movements may not even be aware of it and their bed partner may be the one to alert them of it.

Although it varies for each person, people with periodic leg movements may also experience insomnia or daytime fatigue, caused by interrupted sleep. In addition, they may suffer from restless legs syndrome (RLS), a sensation in a person’s legs that causes a strong, often irresistible urge to move them as they try to fall asleep or when they awaken at night. This sensation has been described as uncomfortable and, in some cases, painful. Other words used to describe these sensations include creeping, itching, pulling, creepy-crawly and tugging. Although rare, these sensations also may occur in the arms and other parts of the body.

It is mostly unknown what causes periodic leg movements, but in many cases the patient also suffers from other medical problems such as Parkinson’s disease or narcolepsy. Factors that increase the likelihood of periodic leg movements in the absence of restless leg syndrome include:

  • Being a shift worker
  • Snoring
  • Coffee drinking
  • Stress
  • Use of hypnotics

Being a woman, the presence of musculoskeletal disease, heart disease, obstructive sleep apnea, cataplexy, doing physical activities close to bedtime and the presence of a mental disorder were significantly associated with having a higher risk of both periodic leg movements and restless legs syndrome.

The first step in treating periodic leg movements or RLS is to determine if they result from an underlying medical condition and, if so, treating those causes. In many cases, this will eliminate the nighttime movements. If this is unsuccessful, there are various medications available to treat both periodic leg movements and RLS.

The three classes of drugs frequently used include benzodiazepines, Parkinson drugs and narcotics. These medications will not cure periodic leg movements or RLS, but will help to reduce or eliminate symptoms. It is important to know that they may cause side effects, which should be discussed with your doctor. Patients must stay on these medications in order to experience relief for there is no known cure for this disorder.

It is also advised to not consume caffeine, alcohol or antidepressants as these substances could worsen symptoms.