When patients describe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbon Syndrome, it can sound like something out of a psychothriller movie.
An ode to its name, the uncomfortable and often painful sensations of restless legs syndrome (RLS) begin when a person is sitting or sleeping. Patients often describe it as though small ants or worms are crawling all over a person’s limbs. Moving actually relieves the pain, so when you should be sleeping, your body is crying out to move. As a result, falling asleep is difficult, and those afflicted with this condition (between 3.9 and 14.3 percent of the population) often move through their days like zombies — absolutely sleep deprived and even less mobile because of their extreme fatigue.
Neurology experts say RLS is worthy of attention, not only because of its impact on the quality of a person’s life, but because of the extreme impact it can have on chronic disease.
A report released Wednesday in the journal Neurology followed more than 12,500 men for six years to determine the long-term effects of restless leg syndrome on the quality of the subjects’ lives, specifically to examine the effects of daytime sleepiness (as a result of RLS) and its impact on physical function.
Dr. Xiang Gao at Harvard Medical School, the lead researcher and corresponding author of the study, and his team only had data available on men, but in the future he said they plan to study women, for which the disease is almost twice as prevalent.
In the study, researchers were able to correlate the severity of a subject’s RLS symptoms with the level of their physical function. During the six-year period, researchers determined that the physical impact of the symptoms of severe restless legs syndrome on the body is equivalent to five years of aging or moderate amounts of smoking. In a phone interview, Dr. Gao said this is the first study of its kind to isolate a relationship between the RLS and its impact on physical debilitation. They established a control for the patients’ other disease factors, so that researchers could determine where the specific effects of RLS took an impact on the men’s health.
“Although it’s an association over a period of time, restless legs is linked to cardiovascular disease and even morbidity and mortality. There’s something going on that’s more than a matter of simple discomfort for these folks,” said Dr. Sanford Auerbach, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Auerbach wrote an editorial on RLS in the same issue of the journal, arguing for physicians on the front lines of care to treat RLS as an indicator that physicians look for additional problems with the patient that may not be immediately evident.
“If you have restless legs syndrome, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have other medical problems, but it’s worth taking another look. The trouble is, while some patients come in complaining, others don’t think RLS is a real problem, or they don’t think the physician can really do anything about it. Or, they will just think that they’re crazy,” he said.
Sadly, the condition itself pushes patients physically to the brink.
For more information about restless legs syndrome, please consult this fact sheet from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Have you suffered from restless legs syndrome? How have you dealt with its debilitating symptoms?Chelsea Rice is a health content producer for Boston.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaRice.