Quelling the frenzy of restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) does what it says on the can. Victims need to only sit or lie down for a few seconds before creepy-crawly sensations literally drive them up the wall. The discomfort is as insatiable as the urge to move is uncontrollable. It is, literally again, a nightmare; a frantic evening quickly followed by a frenetic night.

The Colour Economy: Frantic on Vimeo. Jer Thorp on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/blprnt/2542831577/
The Colour Economy: Frantic on Vimeo. Jer Thorp on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/blprnt/2542831577/

Neurologists rarely struggle to make the diagnosis of RLS. And with the efforts of support groups such as the RLS foundation, patients are now well-informed about the diagnosis. To the chagrin of the neurologists, patients often come with a list of medications they have tried, and failed.

Frantic future. Jim Choate on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/137864562@N06/27938018674
Frantic future. Jim Choate on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/137864562@N06/27938018674

The list of RLS risk factors is quite long. Some of these are modifiable, and the ‘must-exclude’ condition here, iron deficiency, requires checking the level of ferritin in blood. Other modifiable risk factors are quite diverse such as obesity, migraine, and even, surprisingly, myasthenia gravis (MG). Most RLS risk factors, such as peripheral neuropathy and Parkinson’s disease (PD), are unfortunately irreversible; in these cases some form of treatment is required.

Frantic Face Sculpture. Eric Kilby on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ekilby/14875258474
Frantic Face Sculpture. Eric Kilby on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ekilby/14875258474

But what really works in RLS? And what is the evidence? To the rescue come the latest Practice guideline summary: Treatment of restless legs syndrome in adults, published in the journal Neurology. Below, in summary, are the interventions that work in RLS.

Strong evidence (Level A)

  • Pramipexole
  • Rotigotine
  • Cabergoline (but beware of cardiac risks)
  • Gabapentin enacarbil

Moderate evidence (level B)

  • Ropinirole
  • Pregabalin
  • Ferric carboxymaltose 
  • Pneumatic compression

Weak evidence (level C)

  • Levodopa
  • Oxycodone/naloxone (prolonged release)
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
  • Vibrating pads (to improve subjective sleep)

Add-on treatments in haemodialysed patients

  • Vitamin C 
  • Vitamin E 

Enough to guarantee a well-deserved nighttime sleep!


You may wish to look at another set of RLS guidelines also recently published in the journal Sleep titled Guidelines for the first-line treatment of restless legs syndrome/Willis–Ekbom disease, prevention and treatment of dopaminergic augmentation: a combined task force of the IRLSSG, EURLSSG, and the RLS-foundation



What are the advances in the management of cluster headache?

Cluster headaches are nasty, excruciatingly severe, headaches. They are not called suicide headaches without good reason. Cluster headaches are typically one-sided, localised around the orbit. The eye on the affected side classically turns red and waters. The nostril follows suit by either running or blocking up. The episodes last between 45 minutes to 3 hours during which the hapless victims pace up and down, feeling like smashing their heads against a concrete wall. Relief is short-lasting because the headache cycle repeats itself several times a day, for weeks and months on end. People with episodic cluster headaches may go several months without headaches, but those with the chronic form are not afforded this luxury.

Lego splitting headache. Matt Brown on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/londonmatt/15191073177
Lego splitting headache. Matt Brown on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/londonmatt/15191073177

Treatment of cluster headache is typically three-pronged: acute treatment with triptansintermediate prevention with oral steroids; and prevention with verapamil. OK, I over simplify. Each of these strategies has 2nd, 3rd, and 4th line options. Verapamil, the cornerstone of treatment, comes with significant risks to the heart. And in extreme cases, invasive measures are called upon to save the day.

By Hansjorn - το :Αρχείο:Poseidon sculpture Copenhagen 2005.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Hansjorn – το :Αρχείο:Poseidon sculpture Copenhagen 2005.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Unfortunately all these treatments fail miserably more often than we like to admit. Even invasive treatments are not always successful in cluster headaches. Neurologists and patients alike are therefore always on the lookout for developments which will improve the understanding and management of cluster headaches. And, thankfully, there are a few.

A. Abnormal tyrosine metabolism and cluster headache

By No machine-readable author provided. Benjah-bmm27 assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, Link
By No machine-readable author provided. Benjah-bmm27 assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, Link

The sad fact about cluster headache is, nobody knows what causes it. We know it is due to some malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, and to the trigeminal, or fifth, cranial nerve. This is why it is called a trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia. We know that it favours men who smoke. Beyond this we are rather clueless. It is therefore with high hopes that I read about abnormal tyrosine metabolism in chronic cluster headache, in the journal Cephalalgia. The authors report that people with cluster headaches have high levels of the products of tyrosine metabolism in their blood, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and tyramine. If this turns out to be confirmed, it may open the way to the development of newer and more effective treatments for this painful condition.

B. Heart monitoring on verapamil


The heart is at risk whenever people are put on verapamil. This is because it may induce abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms. It is therefore important to check the electrocardiogram (ECG) of people on verapamil. Guidelines suggest checking the ECG before starting, 10 days after starting, and before each dose increment. It was therefore disconcerting that a recent study, published in the journal Neurology, found that 40% of people on verapamil never had any form of heart monitoring. The paper, titled electrocardiographic abnormalities in patients with cluster headache on verapamil therapy, is an audit of >200 people with cluster headaches on high dose verapamil. In those who had cardiac monitoring, the authors found ECG abnormalities in more than 50%, some very significant and life threatening. A similar finding was reported in an older study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain, titled cardiac safety in cluster headache patients using the very high dose of verapamil (≥720 mg/day). Worrying! Time to take ECG monitoring more seriously in people on verapamil. 

C. New preventative drug options

By Stomac - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Link
By StomacOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Link

Besides verapamil, there are many other options for cluster headache prevention. The list is quite long, and this is the case whenever we are uncertain of what else really works. That is why I was relieved to see a recent guideline on treatment of cluster headaches touting new evidence to guide neurologists. Published in the journal Headache, it is titled Treatment of Cluster Headache: The American Headache Society Evidence-Based Guidelines. This guideline establishes that lithium is effective in preventing cluster headache, but valproate is probably ineffective. More importantly, the guidelines introduce new effective preventative agents such as civamide nasal spray, melatonin, and warfarin. For transitional prevention, occipital nerve injection comes through with glowing tributes. Progress, surely!

D. Neurostimulation for cluster headache

By C. Clark - NOAA Photo Library (direct), NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Image ID: nssl0010, Public Domain, Link
By C. Clark – NOAA Photo Library (direct), NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Image ID: nssl0010, Public Domain, Link

It is no longer surprising to find neurostimulation cropping up in the treatment of any neurological disorder. And cluster headache is no exception. The most effective agent, according to the latest guidelines, is sphenopalatine ganglion stimulation. It now ranks very high in the acute treatment of cluster headache, even if less effective than the good old, conventional acute treatments which are subcutaneous sumatriptan, intransal zolmitriptan, and 100% oxygen. Neurostimulation is also likely to play a future preventative role in cluster headaches, and the candidates here are invasive and non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation. We are waiting with bated breaths!


For more on vagus nerve stimulation, you may check out my previous post titled Vagus nerve stimulation: from neurology and beyond!





Keeping up with the latest practical guidelines in neurology

Neurologists breathe guidelines. And they churn them out at a breathtaking pace. It is extremely difficult keeping up with what’s in, what’s out, and what’s back in again! Often the new guidelines add nothing new, or the important points are buried in sheafs of text justifying the guidelines.

But we can’t get away from them. How then do neurologists keep up, short of becoming paranoid? By becoming obsessive! In developing neurochecklists I had no idea keeping up with the guidelines would be a challenging task because they are released in quick succession. I have looked back to see which are the latest practical guidelines, released in the last 12 months or so. Here they are by disease… but be quick before the guideline-masters revise them…again!


The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and the American Epilepsy Society published their 1st seizure management guidelines in Neurology. Among the key recommendations are to inform patients of a 2-year recurrence risk of 21-45%, and that a nocturnal seizure is among the usual culprits that increase the risk. The vexing question of whether to treat a 1st unprovoked seizure remains that-vexing.

Not to be outdone, the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) released it’s evidence-based guidelines and recommendations for the management of infantile seizures. Published in Epilepsia in late 2015, it shows that Levetiracetam is tops for both focal and generalised seizures. It also confirmed the  hard-earned place of Stiripentol alongside Valproate and Clobazam for Dravet syndrome. It is open access so well-worth a detailed look.


Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD)

Steroids are now standard treatment in Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy (DMD). A recent practice guideline update on corticosteroids in Duchenne’s highlights this, and it also indicates the strength of evidence for the different benefits. There is Level B evidence that steroids improve strength and lung function, and Level C for  delaying scoliosis and cardiomyopathy. Enough to encourage any doubters out there.

Facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD)

Not one I thought had guidelines, but this FSHD diagnosis and management guidelines turned out to be quite useful. The guidelines address four key areas-diagnosis, predictors of severity, surveillance for complications, and treatment. And if you like flow charts, there is an excellent one here. A lot of helpful tips here for example, subjects with large D4Z4 gene deletions are more prone to earlier and more severe disability, and these patients should be reviewed by a retinal specialist.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) 

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most shifty conditions when it comes to guidelines, both diagnostic and management. Take the latest NICE MS guidelines, 39 pages long. All sensible stuff mind you, with time-restricted targets such as 6 weeks for a post-diagnosis follow-up, and 2 weeks to treat a relapse. Mind you, just to keep neurologists on their toes!

MS diagnosis and follow up is often the game of counting lesions on MRI scans. The question of what to count, and when to do so, is addressed in the recent MAGNIMS MS consensus guidelines. More recommendations than guidelines, these did not challenge the sacrosanct MacDonald criteria for dissemination in time, but tinker with dissemination in place. They suggest, for example, that optic nerve lesions be counted. The MAGNIMS consensus guidelines on the use of MRI goes on to stipulate when and how to count lesions throughout the course of MS. Not an easy bedtime read.

Not far behind MAGNIMS, the Association of British Neurologists (ABN) released their revised 2015 guidelines for prescribing disease-modifying treatments in MS. The guidelines classify DMT’s by efficacyAlemtuzumab and Natalizumab triumphing here. We also learn which DMTs to use in different patient groups.

Finally, Neurology published guidelines on rehabilitation in MS. Unfortunately there are quite a few qualifying ‘possibles‘ and ‘probables‘ which water down the strength of most of the recommendations. But what else do we have to go by?

Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)

The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) published a review of CIDP in February 2015. It covers everything ”from bench to bedside”, but heavily skewed towards the former. It confirms that CIDP is a “spectrum of related conditions”, great news for splitters, and disappointing for lumpers. I personally struggle with the concepts of sensory and focal CIDP, have never diagnosed CANOMAD, but never tire of listening to Michael Lunn on VEGF, or be fascinated by the links between CIDP and POEMS syndrome. The review, an editors choice, is open access, and is backed by the authority of Richard Hughes; you really have no choice but to read it!

Unruptured intracranial aneurysms

The America Stroke Association (ASA) published new guidelines on management of unruptured aneurysms in a June 2015 issue of Stroke. It gives a comprehensive review of cerebral aneurysms, addressing the “presentation, natural history, epidemiology, risk factors, screening, diagnosis, imaging and outcomes from surgical and endovascular treatment“. It also suffices for a review article. Some recommendations are easily overlooked such as counsel against smoking and monitor for hypertension (evidence level B). Some important recommendations however have weak evidence, for example surveillance imaging after endovascular treatment (evidence level C).

The guidelines still advocate screening if there are 2 or more affected first degree family members. (I confess my threshold is lower than this). The extensive list of at-risk conditions for aneurysms include the usual suspects such as adult polycystic kidney disease and fibromuscular dysplasia. New culprits (at least to me) are microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism, Noonan syndrome, and α-glucosidase deficiency.


CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36822177

The American Stroke Association (ASA), along with the American Heart Association (AHA), released their guidelines for the management of spontaneous intracerebral haemorrhage in 2015. There are several additional recommendations to the previous guidelines; these include the recommendation to control hypertension immediately from onset to prevent recurrent haemorrhage.

The ASA/AHA also published their updated guidelines on endovascular stroke therapy in 2015. To to show how important this treatment has become, the debate now is whether to use thrombectomy alone, or after thrombolysis. And the winner is…to use thrombectomy after thrombolysis. The eligibility checklist for endovascular therapy with a stent retriever is thankfully quite short.

Concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Concussion is a very topical issue, what with Will Smith as Bennett Omalu in the recent movie aptly titled… Concussion. I have previously posted on the effect of celebrities on neurology, but this here is the serious stuff.  Unlike most guidelines, these clinical practice guidelines for concussion/mild traumatic brain injury and persistent symptoms is not open access. Published in Brain Injury, I could only peruse the abstract, and this mentions 93 recommendations! Tempting however is it’s breadth, addressing everything from post-traumatic headache to sleep disturbance; from vestibular to visual dysfunction.

Friedreich's ataxia (FA)

OK, I confess these guideline are from 2014, a bit dated. But how often does one think ‘guidelines’ in the context of Friedreich’s ataxia. Furthermore, this Consensus clinical management guidelines for Friedreich ataxia is open access! Published in Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases, they are the product of 39 experts, and consist of 146 recommendations! They cover everything from sleep, spasticity, and scoliosis to diabetes, dysphagia, and dysarthria. I bet you don’t enquire about restless legs syndrome (RLS) in your patients with FA!

Motor neurone disease (MND)

And hot off the press are the NICE guidelines on motor neurone disease (MND). One thing to mention is its sheer volume- 319 pages long, and containing 123 recommendations! The guidelines targets every aspect of MND care, and it’s futile trying to master it all. Each specialist can really only pick and choose which aspect is relevant to them. There is a lot of balancing of clinical and economic benefits, and this is reflected by questions such as “what are the most clinically- and cost-effective methods of maintaining nutrition…?” The guidelines address several long-standing issues such as the clinically appropriate timing for placing PEG tubes. Whether they add anything really new is however debatable.


Do you have a recent guideline or update to share? Please leave a comment.