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What is Periodic Limb Movement Disorder?

What is Periodic Limb Movement Disorder?

When President Obama developed a facial tick under his right eye in 2008, he confessed there were a lot of things keeping him up at night. But the tick was not one of them. Such a small twitch is often unnoticeable to the person experiencing it.

That wouldn’t have been the case if he’d had periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD)—a larger twitch that causes spontaneous movement of the hips, legs, ankles and sometimes arms. This condition—the one movement disorder that happens ONLY during sleep—affects 34 percent of those over age 60. PLMD is “periodic” because the movements happen every 20 to 40 seconds and is considered a sleep disorder because it can cause daytime fatigue—in you and your bedmate!

Experiencing symptoms of PLMD may indicate you have deficiencies in neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, or problems with the nerves running from the brain to the limbs. PLMD is also associated with medications, anemia, kidney problems, sleep apnea, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.

To ease the twitching, you can try taking a dopamine or GABA receptor agonist that makes certain neurotransmitters more available to your system. Anti-seizure meds are also used. Make sure you get as much physical activity as possible (10,000 steps a day), and get a blood test to see if you’re low on potassium, magnesium or iron. Also review your medications with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure they’re not triggering PLMD. You can get relief and a better night’s sleep.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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