Structural changes in the area of the brain that processes sensations may be linked with restless legs syndrome, a new study suggests.
People with restless legs syndrome experience uncomfortable sensations in the legs and a need to move them. It often occurs in the evening and at night, and it can affect sleep.
Exercise and iron supplements may reduce symptoms, the researchers said. There are medications for more serious cases, but many have significant side effects if taken for too long.
In the new study, brain scans were performed on 28 people with severe restless legs syndrome and a “control group” of 51 people without the disorder.
Data from another multiyear national study shows that female patients with severe restless legs syndrome may have an increased risk of stroke. Researchers defined severe as experiencing restless legs at least 15 times a month.
For Omran Kaskar, DO, the biggest takeaway from the research is that patients with this disorder need to manage their stroke risk factors.
Dr. Kaskar is a vascular neurologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group and its stroke centers.
The brain scans revealed that people with restless legs syndrome had an average of 7.5 percent less tissue thickness in the somatosensory cortex. This is the area of the brain that processes sensations such as touch, pain, movement, position and temperature.
The people with restless legs syndrome also had a decrease in the brain region where nerve fibers connect the two sides of the brain, according to the study published online April 25 in the journal Neurology.
“These structural changes make it even more convincing that restless legs syndrome symptoms are stemming from unique changes in the brain, and provide a new area of focus to understand the syndrome and possibly develop new therapies,” study author Byeong-Yeul Lee said in a journal news release.
However, the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. And Lee added that it’s possible that restless legs syndrome symptoms may be caused by problems in other parts of the sensory system.
Lee is a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, in Minneapolis.