Restless legs linked to broken hearts

The sleep-robbing condition known as restless legs syndrome (RLS) raises the risk of heart disease in older women about as much as smoking and obesity, according to a new Harvard-based study published online in the journal Circulation.

“If the link to heart disease is confirmed—and there is a growing body of evidence to support that—it would show that restless legs syndrome carries a burden of future risk of a serious medical illness,” explains research team member Dr. John Winkelman, medical director of the Sleep Health Center of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Uncovering this link could help people with RLS pay better attention to their cardiovascular health and potentially ward off a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular condition. “We can use RLS to identify those who have a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease if our findings are confirmed by future studies,” says study leader Dr. Xiang Gao, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Restless sleep

RLS is a disorder that doesn’t yet have widespread awareness and acceptance. There is still a tendency for some, even in medicine, to dismiss it as a “made up” condition. “For those who have moderate to severe restless leg syndrome, it’s not just a curiosity or minor annoyance—it can ruin their lives,” Dr. Winkelman says.

The key sign of RLS is an irresistible urge to move the legs, often accompanied by an uncomfortable “creepy-crawly” sensation. It affects about 2% of adults and is twice as common in women as in men. Symptoms typically flare as people settle into bed, but may also arise when simply resting in a chair or sitting at a desk. Most people with RLS also experience periodic jerking leg motions during sleep.

How could a problem like that be related to heart disease? Nighttime leg movements rev up the cardiovascular system, triggering frequent spikes in blood pressure. In addition, overstimulation and general sleep deprivation take their toll the next day with fatigue, fuzzy thinking, lower work productivity, and depression.

Previous studies have shown that individuals with RLS tended to have lower sleep quality. And since poor sleep quality has been linked to heart disease, “this could be one of the reasons for the connection between RLS and heart disease observed in the study,” says Dr. Gao.

He and his colleagues made the connection between RLS and cardiovascular disease by examining health records of more than 70,000 women participating in the Nurse’s Health Study, the world’s largest, longest-running study of women’s health. Over a six-year period, about one in 60 of the women diagnosed with RLS developed heart disease, compared with about one in 100 of the women without RLS. After correcting for other influences, the researchers determined that women with RLS were about 50% more likely to develop heart disease than women without RLS. The link was strongest for women who had experienced RLS symptoms for at least three years.

“The risk of heart disease relative to RLS is comparable to the relative risk of smoking, being overweight, and not exercising regularly,” says Yanping Li, PhD, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

What can you do?

If you are experiencing uncomfortable urges to move while at rest, either during the day or night, talk to a doctor.

If you have RLS, treatment involves a combination of lifestyle and behavior changes to help keep waking symptoms at bay, such as remaining physically and mentally active when symptoms are most likely to occur. To improve sleep, there are four FDA approved drugs that are remarkably effective, says Dr. Winkelman.

Women with RLS might also consider taking a closer look at their heart health and doing what they can to lower their cardio risk. Should men with RLS do the same? Probably. A similar study is in the works to see if there is a connection between RLS and heart disease in men, but it never hurts to improve your cardiovascular health.


  1. Paul F Davis

    Thank you for this post and discussion on matters of the heart, emotions and overcoming personal pain. As someone who went through a personal ground zero when my ex-wife of 5 years had an affair, I can feel and heal you. I wrote ‘Breakthrough For A Broken Heart’ when processing my personal pain and resurrecting my heart to live again. Truly we can transcend our trials and tribulations to love again and live our dreams!

  2. Clinica de Sueño Alicante

    The data obtained in this study, based on the potential relationship between RLS and the subsequent development of pathological cardiovascular, may constitute the starting point for using the presence or not of RLS as screening or early marker of coronary artery disease and also act as factor prevention in women who suffer, to conduct regular checks cardiology.

  3. Cecilia Wallace

    I found that 1000 mcg of vitamin B12 just before bedtime has stopped my restless leg syndrome. I questioned my physician about this and he said he had heard of the treatment but I’m the first that said it does work.

  4. antiaging

    I am grateful to you for your lovely post it is full of information it really help to make a healthy life.

  5. Abbey Newell

    Being knowledgeable in body fitness is greatly good to us especially in our health

  6. Mack

    Good post for ever one that who suffering from this restless activity, the tips are most useful. thanks for sharing.

  7. Jery Jhons

    very useful information delivery thanks for post

  8. Barbara S.

    Have your Iron level tested! This is not the same as a general blood test. I was found to be low in iron and my long-term RLS disappeared within 48 hours of starting an iron supplement.

  9. Steve Hunt

    I have legs that jerk every minute or two around 9:00-10:00 PM onset. I’m told it is in the same family as RLS. I take Mirapex or Pramipexole .50 MG after dinner and it usually helps. In the article Dr. Winkleman indicated there were 4 drugs that were FDA approved that are remarkably effective to improve sleep. If he could respond, I would like to know what these drugs are. Thank you for a great article.

    • P.J. Skerrett

      Steve — The four FDA-approved drugs are:

      • gabapentin (Horizant) [just approved a few weeks ago]
      • pramipexole (Mirapex)
      • ropinirole (Requip)
      • rotigotine (Neupro)
      • Pamela Manning

        I have suffered from RLS syndrome for many years and was diagnosed in a sleep clinic in Oakville Ontario about 15 years ago having never heard of it before. It was keeping my husband awake more than me! I was put on Clonazapam and have been on it ever since. It really helps and am hoping this long term use of the medication is OK. But it works and that is a blessing.

        I started having RLS as a child and it was always put down to growing pains. This went on until I was well into my 50’s. Just got worse though as I got older. I have always been active and in pretty good health but I do suffer from depression which is treatable with medication. I can´t help wonder reading this article if the two are now related.

        So interesting to hear of other people with similar problems.

  10. Jay Heggins

    Great article. This presents some interesting new insights to the world of RLS…

    • georgiTaylor

      I have suffered w/RLS for over 20 yrs now, I only found a remedy being Mirepex, 12 yrs ago. I tried colanzapam but it never did anythng for RLS, I thought it was for anxiety.
      Anyway, Mirepex really was a life changer for me, both GOOD & Bad!
      I found my personality changed, I became excessive in everything I did and do. I find I have more control over my addictions, but still not 100%
      Did anyone on Mirepex notice any unusual character changes?

  11. Dave Cramer

    I believe RLS is a factor in many other medical disorders and one should not get the impression it is only an isolated symptom of cardiovascular health issues.

  12. Jay Rosen

    I did not see the original article. Causation is theorized but not tested for. IE: no study to see if treatment of RLS
    prevents CAD. How about comparing stats on a long-term treated population vs untreated?

  13. David Wimble

    Inflammation is believed to be a key factor when it comes to Restless Legs Syndrome. A new study was published in the January 14, 2012 issue of “Sleep Medicine Review Journal” that supports this theory. You can read that study here:

    You can view the results of other related scientific studies and learn about some helpful solutions at this free RLS information website:

    A blog for RLS sufferers with helpful tips can be found here:

    • georgiTaylor

      thank you, that is the first time anyone gave me any real info that was not medication

      It will be hard cause I am not good at following stuff like this, but if it means no RLS w/o meds, hey, it works for me.
      thank you will def try this
      I can see why you did this, if I had knowledge that helps, knowing how much this RLS has effected my LIFE. I would of done it too

  14. riki josh

    I usually have the urge to move my legs mot time when sitting, thanks for this enlighthen article. Nice research work..

  15. Anonymous

    Thank you Daniel Pendick, for such a splendid and helpful article.

  16. Kris Mazalewski

    These articles are invaluable. Thank you for your tremendous efforts and research!

  17. Cyril Baldachin

    I take 300 mgms of magnesium every evening and this keeps my RLS in check. Occasionally, about once every two weeks, I take a 300 mgm iron tablet. If I don’t do this RLS is practically unbearable. Last I checked with my doctor, he didn’t seem to think anything was wrong withy this.

    • georgiTaylor

      I do not know how this works, since Magneseum is almost impossible to retain.

      The IRON makes sense, I know I am very low in Vit B12
      am in the process of boosting it up?

      Thnks for sharing

  18. Nancy Whedon

    Well for those who think RLS is bogus, I sure wish you could experience it JUST once! It will not allow you to sleep. You must get up and move around,or get into a movie or activity to take your mind off of it. BEFORE the activity I have to take Ibuprofen to take away the feeling of RLS. Usually half an hour does it and hopefully then I can try to go back to sleep.I have tried to correlate it to the days activities, either super busy and perhaps stressful physically versus a slower paced day. It doesn’t always happen when busy, and sometimes happens when slower paced. I just hope that others with this have people around them that believe them, or it can make you feel like a hypochondriac,(which you aren’t!!)

  19. James Patterson

    I really appreciate this post. I have been looking all over for this! I found this site on Google. It was excellent and very informative.

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