Ekbom's syndrome; Nocturnal leg cramps; Periodic limb movement disorder
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends medications for restless legs syndrome (RLS) or periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) only for persons who fit strict diagnostic criteria, and who experience excessive daytime sleepiness as a result of these conditions. (Excessive daytime sleepiness results from nighttime sleeplessness due to RLS or PLMD symptoms). Little is known about the best way to treat RLS, but some experts suggest the following:
Before taking stronger medications, people should try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Rufen), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, Aleve), and ketoprofen (Orudis KT, Aktron).
Although NSAIDs work well, long-term use can cause stomach problems, such as ulcers and bleeding, and possible heart problems. In April 2005, the Food and Drug Administration asked drug manufacturers of NSAIDs to include a warning label on their product that alerts users of an increased risk for heart-related problems and digestive tract bleeding.
Dopaminergic drugs increase the availability of the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain, and are the first-line treatment for severe restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic leg movement disorder (PLMD). These drugs significantly reduce the number of limb movements per hour, and improve the subjective quality of sleep. Patients with either condition who take these drugs have experienced up to 100% reduction in symptoms.
Dopaminergic drugs, however, can have severe side effects (they are ordinarily used for Parkinson's disease). They do not appear to be as helpful for RLS related to dialysis as they do for RLS from other causes.
Dopaminergic drugs include dopamine precursors and dopamine receptor agonists.
Dopamine Precursors. The dopamine precursor levodopa (L-dopa) was once a popular drug for severe RLS. The standard preparations (Sinemet, Atamet) combine levodopa with carbidopa, which improves the action of levodopa and reduces some of its side effects, particularly nausea. Levodopa can also be combined with benserazide (Madopar) with similar results, but Sinemet is almost always used in America. (Levodopa combinations are well tolerated and safe.)
Patients typically start with a very low dose taken 1 hour before bedtime. The dosage is increased until the patient finds relief. Patients sometimes need to take an extended form or to take it again during the night.
Levodopa acts fast, and the treatment is usually effective within the first few days of therapy. One study reported that a combination therapy of regular-release L-dopa plus sustained release L-dopa was effective in improving sleep.
Serious common side effects of L-dopa treatment (and, to lesser extent, of dopamine receptor agonists) are augmentation and rebound. Many studies report that augmentation (worsening of symptoms that occur earlier in the day) occurs in up to 70% of patients who take L-dopa. The risk is highest for patients who take daily doses, especially doses at high levels (greater than 200 mg/day). For this reason, patients should use L-dopa only intermittently (fewer than 3 times per week). The drug should be immediately discontinued if augmentation does occur. Following withdrawal from L-dopa, patients can switch to a dopamine receptor agonist.
The rebound effect causes increased leg movements at night or in the morning as the dose wears off, or as tolerance to the drug builds up.
Dopamine Receptor Agonists. Dopamine receptor agonists (also called dopamine agonists) mimic the effects of dopamine by acting on dopamine receptors in the brain. They are now generally preferred to L-dopa. Because they have fewer side effects than L-dopa, including rebound effect and augmentation, these drugs may be used on a daily basis. About 30% of patients who take dopamine receptor agonists have reported augmentations symptoms. As the newer drugs are taken for longer periods and at higher doses, however, their augmentation rates may become closer to those of L-dopa.
Dopamine agonists have been shown to relieve symptoms in 70 - 90% of patients. Dopamine agonists can be ergot-derived (such as cabergoline) or non-ergot derived (such as pramipexole and ropinirole). The newer non-ergotamine derivatives may induce fewer side effects than ergot-derived drugs:
Other Dopamine Agonists. Other dopamine agonists that have shown some promise in small studies include alpha-dihydroergocryptine, or DHEC (Almirid), and piribedil (Trivastal).
Regimens. The effects of L-dopa are apparent in 15 - 30 minutes. Dopamine receptor agonists, meanwhile, take at least 2 hours to start working. Some doctors recommend regular use of dopamine receptor agonists for patients who experience nightly symptoms, and L-dopa for those whose symptoms occur only occasionally.
Side Effects. Common side effects of dopaminergic drugs vary but may include feeling faint or dizzy (especially when standing up), headaches, abnormal muscle movements, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, bloating, chest pain, and dry mouth. Nausea may be especially common. Adding the drug domperidone may help to relieve this side effect. In rare cases, dopaminergic drugs can cause hallucinations or lung disease.
Because these drugs may cause daytime drowsiness, patients should be extremely careful while driving or performing tasks that require concentration.
Long-term use of dopaminergic drugs can lead to loss of effectiveness (tolerance). Adding a drug called entacapone (Comtan) may prolong the duration of action of carbidopa-levodopa therapy (Sinemet), but it can cause nausea.
Rebound effect, augmentation, and tolerance can reduce the value of dopaminergic drugs in the treatment of RLS. Using the lowest dose possible can minimize these effects.
Withdrawal Symptoms. Patients who withdraw from these drugs typically experience very severe RLS symptoms for the first 2 days after stopping. RLS eventually returns to pre-treatment levels after about a week. The longer a patient uses these drugs, the worse their withdrawal symptoms.
Benzodiazepines, such as clonazepam (Klonopin), are known as sedative hypnotics. Doctors prescribe them for insomnia and anxiety. They may be helpful for some patients with restless legs syndrome (RLS) that disrupts sleep. Clonazepam may be particularly helpful for children with both periodic limb movement disorder and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The medicine also may be helpful for patients with RLS who are undergoing dialysis.
Side Effects. Elderly people are more susceptible to side effects. They should usually start at half the dose prescribed for younger people, and should not take long-acting forms. Side effects may differ depending on whether the benzodiazepine is long-acting or short-acting.
Interactions. Benzodiazepines are potentially dangerous when used in combination with alcohol. Some drugs, such as the ulcer medication cimetidine, can slow the breakdown of benzodiazepine.
Withdrawal Symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms usually occur after prolonged use and indicate dependence. They can last 1 - 3 weeks after stopping the drug and may include:
Rebound Insomnia. Rebound insomnia, which often occurs after withdrawal, typically includes 1 - 2 nights of sleep disturbance, daytime sleepiness, and anxiety. The chances of rebound are higher with the short-acting benzodiazepines than with the longer-acting ones.
Narcotics are pain-relieving drugs that act on the central nervous system. They are sometimes prescribed for severe cases of restless legs syndrome (RLS). They may be a good choice if pain is a prominent feature. Some evidence also suggests that narcotics reduce the frequency of periodic leg movements.
There are two types of narcotics, both of which have been used for severe RLS:
Although the use of narcotics for severe RLS is controversial, some studies have suggested that even when the treatments are long-term, they are rarely addictive for pain sufferers except among patients with a history of substance abuse.
The use of such drugs may be beneficial when included as part of a comprehensive pain management program. Such a program involves screening prospective patients for possible drug abuse, and regularly monitoring those who are taking narcotics. Doses should be adjusted as necessary to achieve an acceptable balance between pain relief and side effects. Patients on long-term opiate therapy should also be monitored periodically for sleep apnea, a condition that causes breathing to stop for short periods many times during the night. Sleep apnea may worsen symptoms of RLS, insomnia, and other complaints.
Tramadol. Tramadol (Ultram) is a pain reliever that has been used as an alternative to opioids. It has opioid-like properties, but is not as addictive. (However, there are reports of dependence and abuse with this drug as well.) Withdrawal after long-term use (longer than a year) can cause intense symptoms, including diarrhea, insomnia, and even restless legs syndrome itself.
Antiseizure drugs -- such as gabapentin (Neurontin), valproic acid (valproate, divalproex, Depakote, Depakene), and carbamazepine (Tegretol) -- relax blood vessels and are being tested for restless legs syndrome (RLS). Gabapentin, a newer antiseizure drug, is showing particular promise for mild-to-moderate RLS. It may also be effective for periodic leg movement disorder. A new gabapentin product is in phase III clinical trials for the treatment of RLS. The new drug, known as XP13512, converts to gabapentin in the intestines, and therefore may reduce some of the side effects experienced by patients taking antiseizure medications.
Side Effects. All antiseizure drugs have potentially severe side effects. Therefore, patients should try these medications only after non-drug methods have failed. Side effects of many anti-seizure drugs include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, increased appetite with weight gain, hand tremors, irritability, and temporary hair thinning and hair loss (taking zinc and selenium supplements may help reduce this last effect). Some antiseizure drugs can also cause birth defects and, in rare cases, liver toxicity. Gabapentin may have fewer of these side effects than valproic acid or carbamazepine.
Antidepressants. Bupropion (Wellbutrin), a newer antidepressant, may be helpful for restless legs syndrome (RLS). Bupropion is a weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor -- it causes a slight increase in the availability of dopamine in the brain. The drug is not addictive and does not have the severe side effects of other RLS drugs, but more research is needed to determine if it is useful.
Clonidine. Clonidine (Catapres), a drug used for high blood pressure, is helpful for some patients and may be an appropriate choice for patients who have RLS accompanied by hypertension. It also may help patients with RLS who are undergoing hemodialysis.
Baclofen. The anti-spasm drug baclofen (Lioresal) appears to reduce intensity of RLS (although not frequency of movements).
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