Restless legs syndrome increases risk of cardiovascular disease

People with restless legs syndrome (RLS), especially the elderly, may be at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the April 10, 2007, issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

For the study, conducted at the University of Montreal's Sacr'-Coeur Hospital, ten people with untreated RLS spent the night in a sleep laboratory, where researchers monitored periodic leg movements and blood pressure changes. RLS is a neurological disorder in which people have a strong urge to move their legs. Symptoms such as periodic leg movements are typically most severe at night when the legs are resting and can occur every 20 to 40 seconds, increasing blood pressure.

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 or first number, and by an average of 11 points for the diastolic reading, which is the bottom or second number.

"This repetitive rise in blood pressure during periodic leg movements could be harmful to the cardiovascular system, especially in severe cases of RLS, the elderly, and those with a long history of the disease," said the study's lead author Paola Lanfranchi, MD, MSc, with the Universit' de Montr'al in Quebec, Canada. "Past studies have shown that significant blood pressure changes, as shown in our study, are associated with the development of vascular and heart damage. Furthermore, drastic blood pressure surges at night have been associated with a higher rate of stroke in the elderly."

In addition, the study found blood pressure changes increased the most with age and those with a longer history of the disease. "These findings strongly suggest blood pressure surges caused by periodic leg movements might exert a deleterious impact on the cardiovascular system in otherwise healthy people," said study author Jacques Montplaisir, MD, with the Universit' de Montr'al. "Further studies are needed to clarify and quantify the damaging effects of such changes on the heart and blood vessels and also to determine how medications for RLS may impact this damaging effect."

Lanfranchi and Montplaisir say the findings should be interpreted with caution since the study was limited by its small sample size because only people with untreated RLS were included in the study.

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