Symptoms and Signs of Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 1/25/2022

Doctor's Notes on Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) is a type of sleep disorder in which repetitive cramping or jerking of the legs occurs. PLMD is often linked with restless legs syndrome (RLS), a condition involving strange sensations in the legs (and sometimes arms) while awake and an irresistible urge to move the limbs to relieve the sensations, but they are not the same thing. 

Symptoms of periodic limb movement disorder are typically poor sleep and daytime sleepiness because people may be unaware of their leg movements unless a bed partner tells them.  Leg movements involve one or both limbs, and typically the knee, ankle, and big toe joints all bend as part of the movements. Movements can vary from slight to strenuous, wild kicking and thrashing. Movements last about 2 seconds and are rhythmic and repetitive, occurring every 20-40 seconds.

What Is the Treatment for Periodic Limb Movement Disorder?

The treatment of periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) consists of a mix of lifestyle changes and medication, depending on the severity of symptoms. While there is no cure for primary PLMD, these treatments often improve a patient’s sleep quality. Treatments for periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) may include:

Lifestyle changes may be used for PLMD, such as:

  • Eliminate stimulants such as caffeine or over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as some antihistamines especially before bedtime 
  • Stop excessive alcohol intake 
  • Make sleeping area cool if possible 
  • Incorporate meditation or other relaxation techniques before attempting to go to sleep 
  • If possible, replace old or worn mattresses 
  • Incorporate gentle stretching into your pre-sleep routine 
  • Do not exercise within 2 hours of going to bed

Medications used for PLMD may include:

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.