April 5, 2011 -- Nearly a decade ago, television and movie actor Kevin Dobson, now 68, took on a new role in a play. The job, he said, was one of the toughest he's had, but not because of the acting.
"I was functioning on two or three hours of sleep," said Dobson, perhaps best known for his role as assistant district attorney Bobby Crocker on the TV show "Kojack."
"I wondered how I was going to get the energy to perform the next day" he said.
Dobson could feel his leg slightly twitching at random moments through the night. The intensity of the twitching grew over time, and the only relief, he said, was to get up and walk around.
"It's painful, and the hard part is that it lasts for a moment," said Dobson. "It's a little twitch here and there and then it gets to the point where it's uncontrollable."
Not only did the twitching keep Dobson awake, it affected his wife Susan.
It wasn't until a decade later that Dobson, during a routine physical exam, told his doctor about his symptoms.
"He knew right away that it was restless legs syndrome," said Dobson, who was then prescribed medication to relieve his symptoms. "I wished I would've told him sooner."
Restless legs syndrome, characterized by incessant leg twitching during the night, affects nearly 12 million Americans and is responsible for nearly one-third of insomnia cases, according to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.
While it's unclear what causes the condition, preliminary new evidence suggests that some who suffer from restless legs syndrome are more likely to suffer left ventricular hypertrophy, a hardening of the heart muscles that more than doubles the risk of having a heart attack.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic conducted an overnight sleep study on 584 patients who were diagnosed with Restless Legs Syndrome. Those who moved their legs more frequently while asleep were more likely to be older, male and to suffer from heart disease.
The findings were presented Monday at the American College of Cardiology's 60th annual scientific session. The study adds to mounting evidence that getting less sleep can increase your risk for heart troubles, said Dr. Arshad Jahangir, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and lead researcher of the study.
Research Opens The Door to Understanding Restless Legs
Although Dobson said he doesn't suffer from any heart conditions, many who are diagnosed with restless leg syndrome tend to have higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.
But Jahangir said the association between restless leg syndrome and the heart is not clear. One hypothesis is that the sleeplessness associated with restless leg could be contributing to the increase in heart problems.
Jahangir says these findings are yet another reminder for patients and physicians to recognize potential effects of restless leg syndrome.
"RLS is often overlooked among physicians because many think the syndrome doesn't even exist," said Jahangir. "It's important for patients to discuss their symptoms with their physicians and for physicians to ask."
Three years after the initial study, those found to have left ventricular hypertrophy had a higher likelihood of suffering from heart failure, frequent heart related hospital visits, and heart-related death.
Jahangir said more studies need to be conducted to confirm his initial findings. He said it's also unclear whether medications that relieve restless leg symptoms can also work to prevent potential hypertrophy and other heart conditions experienced by patients.
"We need to get more data before we recommend and guidelines," said Jahangir. "We are raising more questions than answering questions here, but we're paving the way to learn more."