Grant funds study on Restless Legs Syndrome

March 02, 2006

Hershey, Pa. -- Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) may not mean much to some people, but for nearly 5 percent to 15 percent of the population, it is a debilitating disorder that can lead to chronic fatigue, depression and difficulty maintaining a fulfilling life.

James R. Connor, professor and vice chair of the Department of Neurosurgery in the Penn State College of Medicine at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, leads a team of specialists who study RLS and its causes. Connor's team hopes that local people diagnosed with RLS and their family members will participate in a new trial supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania State Department of Health.

RLS is a neurological disorder characterized by a strong, irresistible urge to move the legs, in response to uncomfortable sensations, such as tugging, gnawing or creepy-crawly feelings. These symptoms become worse during periods of rest and better with movement. However, the relief is only temporary -- once movement ceases, the symptoms recur. The sensations are usually more severe at night, greatly disrupting sleeping patterns.

The Department of Health recently awarded Connor and his team nearly $500,000 to create a Restless Legs Syndrome Center of Excellence for continued study and to increase awareness of the disorder.

"By increasing awareness, we can encourage people who may have symptoms to seek medical assistance, get a diagnosis and receive treatment that may help to restore their sleep and improve the quality of their lives" Connor said. "By continuing to study the mechanisms that cause this complex disorder, we are getting closer to being able to develop therapies that provide more lasting relief for those who deal with its effects every day."

About half of those with RLS also have a family member who suffers from it. Symptoms can begin at any age, but seem to increase over time. Those with RLS often experience loss in productivity, increased incidence of depression and sleep disturbance. Early retirement is often the result because of fatigue associated with the lack of sleep. The bed partner of the individual also is affected by the disorder, as they are disturbed during the night, resulting in a negative impact on both of their lives.

There is no cure for RLS. Some temporary remedies include massage or cold compresses; however, medication usually is required for long-term relief.

In 2003, Connor led a team composed of researchers from the College of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University to uncover the mystery of RLS. They found that patients with RLS had improper transportation of iron to the brain, making the brain cells iron deficient -- not degenerative or damaged as in other neurological diseases. This gave the team renewed hope for finding the biological cause of RLS that could then point to approaches to find a cure.

"The work done here by Dr. Connor's team holds promise not only for those with RLS in our community, but for people dealing with this disorder around the world," said Robert Harbaugh, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery in the College of Medicine. "This project is just one example of how the College of Medicine is pushing the frontiers of neuroscience to better serve patients and improve their quality of life."

To learn more about RLS, or to enroll in the new clinical trial, call Deborah Hoffman at (717) 531-0003, extension 283063 or visit online.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009