August 23, 2021

Is Restless Legs Syndrome Bad for Your Heart?

The short answer from an interventional cardiologist

A person in bed tangled up in the sheets

Q: A few weeks ago, I began getting restless legs in bed. After several sleepless nights, I called my doctor. She told me the condition had “serious implications for my heart” and scheduled me for a thorough physical exam. What is the connection?

A: Anyone who has experienced restless legs syndrome (RLS) knows it’s a strange condition. As soon as you lie down, the urge to move your legs begins. No matter how hard you try, you cannot stop thrashing around or get comfortable.

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Although a connection between this strange syndrome and heart disease sounds unlikely, it does exist. Moreover, it was recently discovered that women with RLS are at increased risk of dying from heart disease.

In 2013, a connection between RLS and increased risk of death in men was discovered. The researchers then examined a large cohort of women to see whether women with RLS were also at risk for death from all causes, as well as death from a heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.

They were unable to make a definite connection between RLS and all-cause mortality in women. However, they found a significant association between RLS and a higher risk of cardiovascular death after other causes of death were excluded.

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There are medications for RLS, but you should be examined for underlying causes like Parkinson’s disease and kidney failure. Iron deficiency is a common cause that can be successfully treated with iron supplements.

We also know that both men and women with RLS are likely to have Type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and sleep apnea — all of which increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

What this means for you is that in addition to treating the RLS so you can sleep, you will also need to tackle any cardiovascular risk factors you have to reduce your elevated risk of death from a heart attack or stroke.

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— Interventional cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

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