Restless legs syndrome is a condition that affects up to 10 percent of the U.S. population — a staggering figure. It can result in difficulty sleeping, loss of productivity at work, severe discomfort and even emotional difficulties. A new study, however, posits that the problem may be even more serious than previously thought. Some researchers now believe that severe RLS could be directly related to an increased for stroke in women of middle age.
Severe vs. Mild
It is important to note that only those patients with the severe variety of the ailment appear to be at increased risk. Those with milder RLS do not seem to have an associated stroke risk, according to the study’s principle investigator, Xiang Gao, MD, PhD. Gao is the director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Lab in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State University.
Revealing the Results
Gao presented the results of the recent study at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (SLEEP 2015). The study, began in 2005, analyzed almost 73,000 women aged 41-58 years old and all free of complications such as pregnancy, diabetes and stroke.
It revealed that RLS can be associated with risk factors such as hypertension, obesity and autonomic dysfunction, all of which create an increased risk factor for stroke. This is one of the few studies that have examined RLS for this risk, and the only one that has done so in middle-aged women.
Methods and Follow-Up
Participants were required to meet diagnostic criteria from the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group and experienced symptoms at least five times per month. Follow-ups were conducted over six years, and of those studied, 161 had a stroke at some point. 139 of these had no RLS. 10 had RLS less than 15 incidents a month, and 12 experienced symptoms over 15 times a month.
Managing Risk Factors
The findings, according to Dr. Gao, indicate that it is important to manage cardiovascular risk factors to prevent strokes in patients who have severe RLS. Women with this condition appeared to have a particularly strong association for ischemic stroke in particular. When women who had arthritis, cancer, myocardial infarction and strokes within 2 years of the first follow-up were excluded, the numbers were further confirmed.
Association, not Cause
Dr. Michael Thorpy of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center is very quick to point out that this study indicates only a correlation and not causation. Because RLS appears to be associated with strokes does not mean that having the condition is a cause of stroke.
There can still be many other factors involved. What Dr. Gao does say is that the condition of RLS comes along with cardiovascular and autonomic shifts which are indicators of a heightened risk of stroke.
For more information on RLS, take some time to read our Restless Leg Syndrome page, and if you live in the Atlanta area, schedule an appointment for consultation today.