The syndrome of painful legs and moving toes

Authors

  • D. Dressler,

    1. MRC Human Movement and Balance Unit and University Department of Clinical Neurology, Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London, England
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  • P. D. Thompson,

    1. MRC Human Movement and Balance Unit and University Department of Clinical Neurology, Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London, England
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  • R. F. Gledhill,

    1. Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Neurology, University of Pretoria and Kalafong Hospital, Pretoria, South Africa
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  • Dr. C. D. Marsden

    Corresponding author
    1. MRC Human Movement and Balance Unit and University Department of Clinical Neurology, Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London, England
    • University Department of Clinical Neurology, Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, England
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Abstract

The clinical presentation, symptoms, and signs in 20 new patients with the painful legs and moving toes syndrome are presented. Painful legs and moving toes may develop in the setting of spinal cord and cauda equina trauma, lumbar root lesions, injuries to bony or soft tissues of the feet, and peripheral neuropathy. In 4 of the 20 cases in the present study, no definite cause was found. Pain preceded the onset of toe movements in 18 cases, but in 2 the reverse sequence occurred. The pain had many of the characteristics of causalgia, but none of the patients exhibited the full picture of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and peripheral trauma was the trigger in only 5 cases. Several patients reported that the occurrence of toe movements was closely related to the pain, although abolition of pain with lumbar sympathetic blocks was not necessarily associated with disappearance of the movements. Several features suggest a central origin for the movements. Symptoms may begin one side and become bilateral; movements may be momentarily suppressed by voluntary action or exacerbated by changing posture; and electromyography reveals complex patterns of rhythmic activity with normal recruitment of motor units involving several myotomes. Three other patients with similar moving toes but no pain are also described. The occurrence of similar movements in the absence of pain raises the possibility that these cases represent examples at one end of a spectrum of disorders, with pain alone (causalgia) at the other end and the syndrome of painful legs and moving toes in between. Common precipitating factors are peripheral tissue, nerve, or root injury, which may lead to alterations in afferent sensory information with subsequent reorganisation of segmental or suprasegmental efferent motor activity. The altered sensory input may result in pain, abnormal efferent motor activity, or both via segmental or suprasegmental sensorimotor circuits.

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