Ever get that irresistible urge to move your legs, especially at night? You could be suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome. And to make matters worse, a new study has found those with RLS are at a higher risk for stroke, heart and kidney disease, and even an earlier death.

Researchers used a database of more than three million veterans. They selected one group of 3,700 individuals with a new RLS diagnosis, and a second group of 3,700 individuals who didn’t have the neurological-sleep-movement disorder, but who had more than 20 demographic and clinical factors in common with the first group. The team then tracked these groups for roughly eight years to compare the instances of stroke, coronary heart disease, chronic kidney disease, or death from any cause. 

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The instance of stroke and heart disease in those with RLS was four times that of the non-RLS group and the incidence of kidney disease was three times greater. The researchers stress that their study only shows an association, not that RLS directly brings on these conditions. 

But just how many people suffer from RLS and what are the side effects if not these chronic ailments? Take a look at the following information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.  

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How common is restless leg syndrome?

One in 10 Americans have RLS, though some studies have shown that moderate to severe RLS affects approximately two to three percent of adults (that’s over five million individuals), according to the NIH. 

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What is restless leg syndrome and what are the symptoms?

RLS is a neurological disorder in which you experience throbbing, pulling, creeping, or other unpleasant sensations in your legs and an uncontrollable, sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them. Lying down seems to activate the symptoms, and only moving your legs brings relief. “A classic feature of RLS is that the symptoms are worse at night with a distinct symptom-free period in the early morning, allowing for more refreshing sleep at that time,” according to NIH. “Other triggering situations are periods of inactivity such as long car trips, sitting in a movie theater, long-distance flights, immobilization in a cast, or relaxation exercises.”   

Aside from the discomfort, which can range from irritating to downright painful, most people with RLS have difficulty falling and staying asleep. The condition can severely impact the quality of life and cause chronic fatigue and exhaustion in addition to impairing memory and concentration. 

Though RLS occurs in men and women, the incidence is about twice as high in women. It can develop at any age, but those who are severely affected are middle-aged or older, and the symptoms typically worsen with age. 

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What causes it?

Most of the root causes of RLS are unknown, but genetics play a role. Here are some of the factors and conditions associated with RLS:

- low levels of iron in the brain 
- dysfunction in the brain’s basal ganglia circuits that use the neurotransmitter dopamine (disruption of these pathways frequently can cause involuntary movements)
- Parkinson’s disease (another disorder of the basal ganglia’s dopamine pathways)
- Chronic diseases like kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy
- Medications like antinausea drugs (prochlorperazine or metoclopramide), antipsychotic drugs (haloperidol or phenothiazine derivatives), antidepressants that increase serotonin, and some cold and allergy medications that contain sedating antihistamines
- Alcohol and sleep deprivation 

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How is it diagnosed?

There is no specific test for RLS, But the NIH highlights the four basic criteria for diagnosing it:
1. Symptoms that are worse at night and are absent or negligible in the morning.
2. A strong and often overwhelming need or urge to move the affected limb(s)
3. Sensory symptoms that are triggered by rest, relaxation, or sleep.
4. Sensory symptoms that are relieved with movement and the relief persists as long as the movement continues.
 

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What is the prognosis of people with restless legs?

RLS is typically a lifelong condition, but there are ways to relieve your symptoms (aside from constantly moving your legs). Also, your symptoms may disappear, then reappear days, weeks, or months later. 

“Certain lifestyle changes and activities that may reduce symptoms in persons with mild to moderate symptoms include decreased use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate, and magnesium; changing or maintaining a regular sleep pattern; a program of moderate exercise; and massaging the legs, taking a hot bath, or using a heating pad or ice pack,” according to NIH.  

Medications can help manage your symptoms so talk to a specialist about starting a prescription drug.

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