Can restless legs cause ED? A man’s restless legs that are keeping him up at night may prevent him from “getting it up.” A recent study shows that men with restless leg syndrome (RLS) have an increased risk for erectile dysfunction. So can restless legs cause ED, and what is the connection?
Restless legs syndrome and ED
Men with RLS have a 38% increased risk of ED compared with men without RLS. These results were found after adjusting for age, body mass, other sleep disorders, snoring, physical activity, and smoking status. Researchers led by Xiang Gao, MD, of the Channing Laboratory and Harvard Medical School in Boston also found that risk of ED also rose as the frequency of RLS symptoms increased. According to the results, men who experienced RLS 5–14 times per month had a 34% increased risk of ED (compared with men who did not have RLS), whereas men who had RLS 15 or more times per month had a 45% increased risk.
David Luterman, MD, medical director of the Sleep Center at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas say this is a good starting point for researching how RLS and ED are connected. “Not everyone with restless legs has erectile dysfunction,” Dr. Luterman says. “But the occurrence is greater than in the general population.”
One possible connection could be dopamine. Dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain) has a role in both RLS and ED. Dopamine helps the muscles of the penis to relax and the arteries to widen, increasing blood flow, which leads to an erection. Researchers believe that the proper transmission of dopamine signals from the brain is important in avoiding RLS symptoms. Medications that increase dopamine in the brain are often effective at treating RLS.
Approximately 10 percent of adults suffer from RLS, which is a neurological sensorimotor disorder that causes uncomfortable or painful sensations in the legs. People who have RLS often feel as though they need to move their legs, by walking or stretching, in order to stop the uncomfortable sensations. The symptoms tend to get worse when sitting for a long time or even just relaxing. Because the symptoms usually get worse at night, they interfere with the ability to sleep.
How does sleep affect ED?
While the RLS study does not say what exactly causes the link between RLS and ED, they did find that combinations of other sleep disorders with RLS further increased the risk of ED. Possibly sleep disruption is partly to blame. Other studies researched the effects of sleep on ED and other urinary health problems. “Sleep is a modifiable risk factor that precedes certain urologic conditions,” according to a study by researchers at New England Research Institutes Inc. in Watertown, Massachusetts.
American Urological Association spokesperson Kevin T. McVary, MD, said, “We know that proper amounts of sleep and quality of sleep can impact a wide range of health conditions including erectile function and lower urinary tract symptoms…These data may help us better assess how helping patients modify their sleep patterns may help improve their health and overall quality of life.”
Can restless legs cause ED? Researchers cannot say for sure if RLS causes ED, but there is a strong link and risk factor. Whether the two conditions are related to dopamine or interrupted sleep or some other connection, future studies are sure to bring more understanding of and treatments for erectile dysfunction.
Read more in our Erectile Dysfunction Health Center.
Acosta Scott, Jennifer. 2013. Could restless legs syndrome be linked to erectile dysfunction? Everyday Health
American Urological Association 2011. Studies link quality of sleep to erectile dysfunction, other urologic conditions.
Li Y et al. Prospective study of restless legs syndrome and risk of erectile dysfunction. American Journal of Epidemiology 2013 May 15;