(CBS) Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder characterized by an urge to move the legs to counteract unpleasant sensations. A new study suggests that middle aged women with the syndrome may experience something even more unpleasant - heart failure or stroke that results from elevated blood pressure.
For the study - published in the Oct. 10 issue of the journal Hypertension - researchers surveyed more than 65,000 nurses, asking if they experienced any common symptoms of RLS, as well as inquiring about their blood pressure. The researchers found that 33 percent of women who experienced frequent (more than 15) RLS episodes each month had high blood pressure, compared with only 21 percent of women who had no RLS symptoms.
"We cannot say from this study that restless legs syndrome causes blood pressure to rise," study co-author Dr. Salma Batool-Anwar, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School, told WebMD. "But we did see a significant relationship between the severity of (RLS) symptoms and prevalence of hypertension."
In an accompanying editorial in the same journal, Dr. Domenic Sica, professor of medicine and pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, suggested that the lack of sleep that often accompanies the syndrome doesn't allow the body to "calm" itself at night.
"If you don't sleep, you never have enough rest to bring your blood pressure down at night, which is what it's supposed to do," Sica told HealthDay. "Blood pressure is supposed to drop about 20 percent at night."
What's the take-away message for women with restless legs syndrome? The study's authors say women with the syndrome should consult their doctor.
"The risk of hypertension can be substantially reduced by following a healthy life style, including a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and keeping optimal body weight," study co-author DR. Dr. Xiang Gao, an assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, told HealthDay. "
Up to 15 percent of the population has restless legs syndrome. Symptoms include unusual crawling or tingling sensations, pain, and an urge to move that can last an hour or more. There is no known cure for the syndrome, but warm baths, stretching exercises, massages, and some medications can help relax the muscles.
Hypertension increases a person's risk for chronic kidney disease, heart attack and failure, and stroke.
WebMD has more on restless leg syndrome.