Sleep Disorders

10 August 2010

Restless Legs Syndrome Can Have Family Ties

Risk rises if parent, sibling has the movement disorder, study shows


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MONDAY, May 10 (HealthDay News) -- Siblings and family members of people who have restless legs syndrome are also more likely to suffer from the condition, a new report suggests.

The authors of the study, which is published in the May issue of Archives of Neurology, hope the findings will raise awareness of the condition for both physicians and patients.

"These authors found very stark significant evidence that if you have a sibling or a family member with restless legs syndrome, you have a very high risk of having it," said Dr. Carl Boethel, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and medical director of the Sleep Institute at Scott & White in Temple, Texas.

That means if you have a family member and, particularly, a sibling with restless legs syndrome, or RLS, you might want to get screened, he said.

Fortunately, said study senior author Dr. Guy A. Rouleau, professor of medicine at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, "many treatments are available for this disease. No one needs to suffer from this without treatment."

Iron deficiency, for instance, can trigger the syndrome, he said. "Treat it with iron and it goes away," Rouleau said. "If it doesn't go away, the same drugs for Parkinson's actually work very well for restless legs syndrome."

Although experts have long seen a familial connection with RLS, there haven't been any really rigorous studies on the subject, nor have there been good descriptions of the symptoms, the authors stated.

"Restless legs syndrome is a very common disorder. Up to 10 percent of individuals have it and, in surveys, the vast majority of people are undiagnosed," said Rouleau.

Although many tend to dismiss the syndrome, symptoms actually can become quite severe, Rouleau said.

"They're called nightwalkers. What happens is that the symptoms get worse in evening and peak during the night, and the only way to relieve symptoms is to move," he explained. "Of course, moving and sleeping are not compatible so what happens is people don't sleep, they disturb the family, they have problems driving and working. People have committed suicide. It can be very disturbing in its severe forms."

The study involved 671 individuals who met the criteria for having RLS, including 192 individuals who had initially been evaluated at a sleep center and 479 of their family members who answered questions over the telephone.

Sisters or brothers of someone with RLS were 3.6 times more likely to also have the condition as compared to those who did not have a sibling with RLS.

Children of parents with RLS faced almost double the risk.

"Our study gives us a lot of information about how genetic RLS is, what are the chances of having it, what does the disease look like in people and in family members," Rouleau said. "It's a disorder that's not well known or understood but it's very common. The main gist of the study was to get a very clear vision of what this disease is and what are the effects on people."

Scientists now need to start teasing out how much of RLS is environmental and how much genetic, the authors concluded.


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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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