Getting off your feet and sinking into your comfy bed should be a welcome relief from the day, however, pregnancy leg cramps can stand between you and a peaceful nights sleep.
These painful involuntary muscle contractions, that typically affect the calf, foot or both — are common during expecting mothers, especially at night.
They often happen in the second trimester around week 19 and last through the third trimester.
Keep reading to find out what causes leg pain during pregnancy–and how to feel better!
What Causes Prenatal Cramps?
Nobody is 100% sure. There is no “researched” answer to the reason why it happens more during pregnancy. Various theories include:
- the pressure of the expanding uterus on certain nerves.
- oedema (fluid buildup) in the legs and feet caused by the pressure of the expanding uterus slowing the return of blood from your legs to your heart.
- muscle fatigue due to the legs bearing increased weight.
- the effects of the pregnancy hormone progesterone, affecting the muscle tone. We might as well blame pregnancy hormones, since they seem to cause so many pregnancy aches and pains.
- and possibly diet — an excess of phosphorus and a shortage of calcium or magnesium.
Severe cramps can cause pain for a few days, and that’s not usually a cause for concern. But if the pain is severe and constant and not just an occasional cramp, you notice heat, swelling, redness or tenderness in your leg), see your doctor immediately – in some rare cases, you could have a blood clot that requires immediate medical treatment. Blood clots (venous thromboembolism) are rare, but they are more common during pregnancy. Don’t massage your calf, massaging it could make the clot worse or allow it to travel.
What’s the best way to relieve a leg cramp?
If you are woken up by a cramp, immediately stretch your calf muscles. Straighten your leg and press your heel toward the ceiling, and gently flex your toes back toward your shins. It may hurt at first, but it will ease the spasm and the pain will gradually go away. Don’t point your toes while stretching. It will contract the calf muscles and worsen the cramp. If this doesn’t work, you may have to get out of bed and walk around for a few minutes. Keep pulling your toes up toward your shin. Standing on a cold surface can sometimes stop a spasm. When the cramp is gone, ease the muscle by massaging with long, firm strokes or warming it with a hot water bottle, heating pad or a warm facecloth. Elevating your legs might help keep the leg cramp from returning.
Tips to Prevent Leg Cramps:
The following may help you to have a cramp-free sleep:
Daily foot exercises Put your feet up as often as you can when you’re seated. Especially if you are experiencing oedema. This will assist your circulatory system in carrying the fluid back to your upper body. Also, try not to sit with your legs crossed. With your feet up on a cushion, point and flex your feet several times, then make circles with your feet and ankles in each direction. This will decompress your ankle joints and the contraction of your calf muscles assists the lymph system in also carrying fluid back up to your torso. You can do this in the evening while relaxing to music, reading a book or watching tv. Allow your feet space to move around in your bed. If you sleep with your bedding tucked in, this might keep your toes pointing downwards, in the perfect position for a cramp.
To prevent cramps caused by dehydration, be sure you’re hydrated very well. Get used to going everywhere with a bottle of water and set some goals of how much you will drink by certain times. If water is not quite your thing, you can include herbal teas, fresh juice, sparkling water with fruit slices. Your urine should be relatively clear or light yellow in colour if you are properly hydrated. If your urine is darker yellow, it might mean that you’re not getting enough water. Dehydration can cause contractions, which can lead to preterm labour. Drink up.
Your leg cramps may be happening because you have a shortage of nutrients and salts circulating in your blood. Drops in potassium, calcium or magnesium can all lead to muscle spasms. There’s some limited evidence that topping up on these nutrients may help to ease cramps. It never hurts to eat plenty of the healthy foods that contain them (just never take a vitamin supplement during pregnancy without talking to your doctor first).
Choose proper footwear.
Choose shoes with comfort and support in mind. Avoid heels, which keep your calf muscles in a shortened position throughout the day.
Stay Active Don’t stand or sit for extended periods of time without a break. Alternate periods of activity with periods of rest. Take a daily walk to get your legs moving and blood flowing. But, before you begin an exercise programme during pregnancy, make sure you have your health care provider’s OK.
If you continue to be bothered by leg cramps, consider wearing support tights/stockings during the day. Have a warm bath before going to bed to relax your muscles.
I really hope this will help ease the discomfort of leg cramps for you. If you have any tips to share, please post a comment below.
I am Emma McAtasney, founder of a boutique Pilates studio in Dundalk, Ireland. BASI trained Pilates instructor, BarreConcept instructor and prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist.
I developed the Body After Baby Core Restore Programme with the aim of helping women with diastasis recti and pelvic floor issues get back into shape after pregnancy!
I love working with successful, courageous women from all over the world – like yourself – to give you clear, applicable information, support you in truly creating core strength, fall in love with your strong and healthy body and focus on living your best life!
Together, let’s create a lifestyle that gives us health and happiness for a lifetime!