Restless Leg Syndrome May Signify Bigger Health Problems, Study Says

People with the syndrome had greater risk for lung disease and immune system problems.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), restless leg syndrome is a neurological disorder “characterized by throbbing, pulling, creeping, or other unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable, and sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them.” Symptoms occur primarily at night when a person is at rest (or relaxing).

As many as 10 percent of the U.S. population may have RLS, according to the NINDS, and several studies have shown that moderate to severe RLS may affect approximately two to three percent of adults (more than 5 million individuals). 

While RLS may be uncomfortable problem for sufferers, it seems that there may be more to it than just restless legs. Boston Medical Center neurologist, Sanford H. Auerbach, has published an editorial in the March 5 issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, that says that RLS may be a biomarker for underlying disease. This is response to the new study that looks at RLS and its effect on predicting diseases which found that RLS and other sleep complaints are associated with lower physical function.

The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study looked at 12,556 men with RLS and found multiple disease associations. “Patients with RLS had a higher mortality rate than similar men, and showed an especially strong tendency toward cardiovascular disease and hypertension,” Auerbach says.

Auerbach suggests that restless leg syndrome is a meaningful biomarker for serious disease, and that RLS screening may become more common as a tool for primary care providers to identify patients at risk. In earlier analyses of the same data, men with RLS were more likely to be diagnosed with lung disease, endocrine disease, diseases of nutrition and metabolism and immune system problems.