According to new research middle-aged women with restless legs syndrome or RLS may be at an elevated risk of high blood pressure.
Up to 15 percent of the population has restless legs syndrome. Restless legs syndrome is characterized by crawling sensations and repeated muscle twichings in one or both legs, and an uncontrollable urge to move them - which may compel a person to walk in circles for hours at night. The condition is often associated with poor quality sleep, which can lead to daytime fatigue, depression, and other health problems associated with lack of sleep. Experts say it's a “syndrome worthy of treatment.” There is no known cure for the syndrome, but warm baths, stretching exercises, massages, and some medications can help relax the muscles.
The study was published online Monday in the journal Hypertension.
There have been studies that show that RLS is linked to damage to walls in the heart (called left ventricular hypertrophy, which is associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart attack), as well as to erectile dysfunction and higher death rates from kidney disease.
In this latest study researchers surveyed more than 65,000 nurses, asking if they experienced any common symptoms of RLS, as well as inquiring about their blood pressure. The researchers found that 33 percent of women who experienced frequent (more than 15) RLS episodes each month had high blood pressure, compared with only 21 percent of women who had no RLS symptoms.
“We cannot say from this study that restless legs syndrome causes blood pressure to rise,” said study co-author Dr. Salma Batool-Anwar, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School. “But we did see a significant relationship between the severity of (RLS) symptoms and prevalence of hypertension.”
In an accompanying editorial in the same journal, Dr. Domenic Sica, professor of medicine and pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, suggested that the lack of sleep that often accompanies the syndrome doesn't allow the body to “calm” itself at night. “If you don't sleep, you never have enough rest to bring your blood pressure down at night, which is what it's supposed to do,” Sica explained. “Blood pressure is supposed to drop about 20 percent at night.”
“The risk of hypertension can be substantially reduced by following a healthy life style, including a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and keeping optimal body weight,” said study co-author Dr. Xiang Gao, an assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School.