Restless legs syndrome is an odd, yet common disorder that causes people to continually move their legs, especially at night when they're trying to fall asleep. As if that wasn't bad enough, now there's new research that shows it may increase one's blood pressure and overall risk for cardiovascular disease. This is a neurological problem, sort of in the same family as Parkinson's.
But this latest research does indeed suggest a spill-over effect on the cardiovascular system. Helen Catlin is a nurse who can tell you first hand what being a patient with restless legs syndrome is like. Patients with RLS may report an almost irresistible urge to move the legs. The sensations usually are worse during inactivity.
"It would bother me at night, sometimes I would have trouble going to sleep or sometimes it would wake me up at night, it would be a sensation of not pain, but enough discomfort that you would have to move, an ache a real ache that would only be relieved by moving your legs, " says Helen. "As it progressed I realized I was waking up because my legs were bothering me."
And those frequent awakenings, common for those with RLS, appear to create a cardiovascular risk. "You actually wake up a little bit when they do sleep studies and during that period of awakening or almost awaking the blood pressure goes up and then it comes down again, and then you have frequent little awakening, frequent little increases in blood pressure,"says Dr. Howard Maker, a neurologist at Beth Israel Medical Center.
The study found blood pressure rates during periodic leg movements rose by an average of 20 points for the systolic reading, which is the top number, and by an average of 11 points for the diastolic reading, which is the bottom or second number. The authors argue that drastic blood pressure surges at night have been associated with a higher rate of stroke in the elderly.
Dr. Maker though, says the jury is still out with RLS. "Restless leg syndrome may or may not have a bad effect on the cardiovascular system it hasn't been proven that these little increases in blood pressure have been dangerous, we do know that the patients are grateful that the restless legs is diminished and that is what we are treating, we are making the patients feel better, their quality of life improves."
And, by treating the restless legs, the blood pressure issue presumably would go away. Helen's blood pressure typically runs in the low range, so she's not at risk; but the medications have changed her life in the more obvious way. "I get a good night sleep, on the medication I am relieved of the symptoms totally. I wouldn't know what I would do without it."
Dr. Maker points out this was studied in only ten patients, so, a bigger study is required. That shouldn't be hard to do, because RLS is very common as we mentioned. Affecting about 10-15% of the general population, with men and women affected equally. It is often unrecognized or misdiagnosed. Many patients are not diagnosed until 10-20 years after symptom onset.