Restless Leg Syndrome Treatment Options

How is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) Treated?


How is Restless Legs Treated?

Physicians also may suggest a variety of medications to treat RLS. Generally, physicians choose from dopaminergics, benzodiazepines (central nervous system depressants), opioids, and anticonvulsants. Dopaminergic agents, largely used to treat Parkinson’s disease, have been shown to reduce RLS symptoms and PLMD and are considered the initial treatment of choice. Good short-term results of treatment with levodopa plus carbidopa have been reported, although most patients eventually will develop augmentation, meaning that symptoms are reduced at night but begin to develop earlier in the day than usual. Dopamine agonists such as pergolide mesylate, pramipexole, and ropinirole hydrochloride may be effective in some patients and are less likely to cause augmentation.

In 2005, ropinirole became the only drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration specifically for the treatment of moderate to severe RLS. The drug was first approved in 1997 for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Benzodiazepines (such as clonazepam and diazepam) may be prescribed for patients who have mild or intermittent symptoms. These drugs help patients obtain a more restful sleep but they do not fully alleviate RLS symptoms and can cause daytime sleepiness. Because these depressants also may induce or aggravate sleep apnea in some cases, they should not be used in people with this condition.

For more severe symptoms, opioids such as codeine, propoxyphene, or oxycodone may be prescribed for their ability to induce relaxation and diminish pain. Side effects include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and the risk of addiction.

Anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine and gabapentin are also useful for some patients, as they decrease the sensory disturbances (creeping and crawling sensations). Dizziness, fatigue, and sleepiness are among the possible side effects.

Unfortunately, no one drug is effective for everyone with RLS. What may be helpful to one individual may actually worsen symptoms for another. In addition, medications taken regularly may lose their effect, making it necessary to change medications periodically.

What is the prognosis of people with restless legs?

RLS is generally a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Symptoms may gradually worsen with age, though more slowly for those with the idiopathic form of RLS than for patients who also suffer from an associated medical condition. Nevertheless, current therapies can control the disorder, minimizing symptoms and increasing periods of restful sleep. In addition, some patients have remissions, periods in which symptoms decrease or disappear for days, weeks, or months, although symptoms usually eventually reappear. A diagnosis of RLS does not indicate the onset of another neurological disease.

What research is being done?

Within the U.S. Federal Government, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one of the National Institutes of Health, has primary responsibility for conducting and supporting research on RLS. The goal of this research is to increase scientific understanding of RLS, find improved methods of diagnosing and treating the syndrome, and discover ways to prevent it.

NINDS-supported researchers are investigating the possible role of dopamine function in RLS. Dopamine is a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals between one area of the brain, the substantia nigra, and the next relay station of the brain, the corpus striatum, to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity. Researchers suspect that impaired transmission of dopamine signals may play a role in RLS. Additional research should provide new information about how RLS occurs and may help investigators identify more successful treatment options.

The NINDS sponsored a workshop on dopamine in 1999 to help plan a course for future research on disorders such as RLS and recommend ways to advance and encourage research in this field. Participants’ recommendations for further research included the development of an animal model of RLS; additional genetic, epidemiologic, and pathophysiologic investigations of RLS; efforts to define genetic and non-genetic forms of RLS; establishment of a brain tissue bank to aid investigators; continuing investigations on dopamine and RLS; and studies of PLMD as it relates to RLS.

Research on pallidotomy, a surgical procedure in which a portion of the brain called the globus pallidus is lesioned, may contribute to a greater understanding of the pathophysiology of RLS and may lead to a possible treatment. A recent study by NINDS-funded researchers showed that a patient with RLS and Parkinson’s disease benefited from a pallidotomy and obtained relief from the limb discomfort caused by RLS. Additional research must be conducted to duplicate these results in other patients and to learn whether pallidotomy would be effective in RLS patients who do not also have Parkinson’s disease.

In other related research, NINDS scientists are conducting studies with patients to better understand the physiological mechanisms of PLMD associated with RLS.

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