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Cardiologists: Stop Laughing at Restless Leg Syndrome

Research shows that RLS should be taken seriously, even by heart doctors

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Updated November 13, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Cardiologists, who (I've been told) sometimes seem smug even to other doctors (those who don't as often traffic in catastrophic or life-threatening medical disorders), have been known to join Rush Limbaugh in making fun of restless leg syndrome (RLS). RLS, these individuals think, belongs in that category of pseudo-medical disorders that are suffered (and worried over) by effete patients and doctors who are so pampered and fortunate that they insist on elevating even trivial complaints to the status of an actual disease, presumably to enhance their status as victims, thereby to assuage their inappropriate feelings of middle-class guilt. (Admittedly, some cardiologists might not follow Mr. L's explanation of RLS all the way down the line. Some may just think it's funny.)

In point of fact, RLS is recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a significant neurological disorder that robs sufferers of sleep and causes significant daytime fatigue, with a resulting loss in cognitive ability, productivity, and quality of life.

RLS is characterized by a set of extremely uncomfortable symptoms in the legs that occur during rest. These symptoms--generally burning, twitching, or creeping sensations--compel the victim to begin moving their legs around for relief (hence, "restless legs"). They have sudden jerks or shaking movements of their leg. RLS can often be treated with avoidance of caffeine, tobacco or alcohol, exercise, dietary supplements, or avoidance of certain medications and administration of others. But to receive treatment, sufferers of RLS must first be taken seriously. And until now that meant they generally had to get help from somebody other than their cardiologists.

And recently, Canadian investigators have published in the journal Neurology a study showing that patients with RLS have significant elevations in their blood pressure during episodes of leg movement while sleeping. Research subjects with RLS demonstrated increases in systolic pressure (the top number in blood pressure measurement) averaging 22 mm Hg, and in diastolic pressure (the bottom number) averaging 11 mm Hg, and furthermore these blood pressure spikes occurred repeatedly, every 20 to 40 seconds, throughout the night. This degree of nocturnal hypertension is sufficient to significantly increase an individual's risk of developing cardiovascular disease - and may explain the previously-documented association between RLS and cardiovascular disease.

It's time for cardiologists to stop laughing at RLS, and for people who think they have this condition to tell their cardiologists about it (instead of holding back for fear of not being taken seriously).

If the cardiologist still laughs or brushes you off, you may feel free to produce a copy of this web page, along with a (preferably gentle) admonition that they might spend more time expanding their knowledge base about conditions not requiring stents that still increase cardiovascular risk.

Sources:

Restless Leg Syndrome Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/restless_legs/detail_restless_legs.htm. (Accessed 4/11/07).

Pennestri MH, Montplaisir J, Colombo R, Lavigne G, Lanfranchi PA. Nocturnal blood pressure changes in patients with restless legs syndrome. Neurology 2007; 68:1213-1218.

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