Follow KDKA-TV: Facebook | Twitter

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Carol Boehm has symptoms of restless leg syndrome.

“I notice if I’ll be laying in bed, sometimes it feels like you just don’t know what to do with your legs. You’ll feel like something’s crawling on it,” Carol describes.

Her mother died of congestive heart failure. She also had restless leg syndrome.

“Any time she would lay down and try to get any rest, it was just so uncomfortable,” Carol says. “They say you just don’t know what to do with your legs when that hits you.”

Researchers at Penn State University have linked the condition to an increased risk of heart disease.

“Patients that did report symptoms of restless leg syndrome actually were found to have not only increased risk of cardiac disease, but from dying of cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Christopher Pray, a cardiologist at St. Clair Hospital.

“With restless legs syndrome, people have an irresistible urge to move their legs, especially at rest or at night. Why it happens is unknown, though it is thought to be related to certain areas deep in the brain and the chemical signal dopamine. It affects up to ten percent of the population, and it’s treated with lifestyle changes and a wide variety of medicines,” says KDKA Health Editor Dr. Maria Simbra.

To look at the association with heart disease, the researchers looked at the information collected from the Nurses’ Health Study. This included nearly 60,000 women, and involved questionnaires every two years from 2002 to 2012.

When the analysis took high blood pressure and obesity into account, the link between physician-diagnosed restless leg syndrome and cardiovascular related death was even stronger, especially with three or more years of symptoms.

Other explanations could be at play, for example, it could be interference with sleep itself. So before declaring restless leg syndrome a stand-alone risk factor for heart disease, Dr. Pray wants more study and more consistent correlation.

“I think that’s a very likely explanation. Any disorder that interferes with our normal sleep architecture has all sorts of devastating effects on the body over time,” Dr. Pray says.

Turns out, Carol fits the pattern.

“I do have heart disease. I had a heart attack three years ago,” she says.