Painful Leg Cramps in Pregnancy: What Can You Do?
You’re lying in bed trying your best to get comfortable with a watermelon-sized baby bump, and suddenly a stabbing pain shoots down your leg. It feels like a hot poker is being jabbed between the muscles of your calf. You have just experienced a pregnancy leg cramp. Painful leg cramps during pregnancy feel somewhat akin to a charley horse in most cases, and no one really knows what causes them. Thankfully, there have been enough pregnant women experimenting to find ways of relieving and sometimes even preventing pregnancy leg cramps.
What can you do?
Leg cramps may be prevented by stretching periodically throughout the day even if your legs do not hurt during the activity. Most pregnant women report the most painful periods being at night once they attempt to relax, not during the activity itself. Stretching coincidentally is also the best way to get rid of a leg cramp once it occurs. Some find it most helpful to flex the foot out moving the toes first up towards your shin, then back towards the floor. Others find pressing their foot against a hard surface helps best, but the goal is to stretch the muscle to get it to relax.
Speaking of relaxing, avoiding heavy activity or standing for long periods can also reduce the occurrence of leg cramps during pregnancy. Excess weight causing strain on muscles is one of the suggested causes of leg cramps, so the less you place weight on your legs the better. This is also why they are most common in the third trimester. However, keep in mind that regular light exercise can decrease weight gain during pregnancy, as well as keep your endurance up for delivery. Find a healthy balance between activity and rest, and remember to take frequent breaks.
Promote good circulation:
When you do take a break, avoid sitting in positions that limit circulation to your legs, such as Indian style. When lying down, opt for side lying positions. Lying flat on your back after the second trimester is not recommended anyway, as it reduces blood flow to your baby. When a leg cramp strikes, changing positions may also help, particularly if the pain is less stabbing and muscular and feels more achy and radiating. Sometimes pregnancy leg cramps are confused with nerve pain as a result of pinching in the lower spine and hips.
Remember your prenatal vitamin:
Some research has suggested supplementing magnesium may eliminate pregnancy leg cramps, though studies are conflicting. Calcium has also been suggested to help. Overall, proper nutrition and a good prenatal vitamin are more likely to reduce or prevent leg cramps than attempting to supplement one particular vitamin or mineral. As with any health supplement while pregnant, or nursing even, be sure to consult a health professional before use.
During pregnancy your body requires more water to help your kidneys and liver keep up with the excess waste being produced by your baby. Even if your water intake has not decreased, you may find yourself unknowingly dehydrated. Watch for a darkening of your urine and increase your fluids. Proper hydration helps prevent muscle cramps.
Find good shoes:
This may seem like a no-brainer, but comfortable footwear can make a big difference in leg and foot pain during pregnancy. While pregnant your body releases hormones to help your joints relax and flex to allow your baby’s head to cross through your pelvis, these same hormones cause the feet to widen changing your shoes size. Your ankles, knees, and other joints may also weaken. Pamper yourself with a new pair of shoes in the right size that offer good ankle support and superior comfort.
Take warm baths:
While bathing circulation is improved to your arms and legs, which can help relieve leg cramp pain. While this effect can be obtained via shower, baths are more effective. Be careful of overly hot baths, however, for example, hot tubing is not OK during pregnancy. Other leg warming alternatives such as heat pads and hot water foot soaks can also bring relief.
Get a massage:
Granted, no one really needs an excuse to get a massage, but they can help alleviate leg pain. Using warm oil, rocks, or even a heated water bottle works even better and feels wonderful. While having someone else perform the massage is more effective, you can do so yourself. If you opt to do so, keep it short. The position required to massage your own leg will limit circulation to your legs possibly making things worse.
As a last resort:
If your pain is keeping you up, as lack of rest can actually worsen leg cramps, consider taking an over-the-counter pain killer such as Tylenol. Remember that NSAID pain relievers such as ibuprofen are not approved for pregnancy, though they are OK after your delivery. Aspirin should not be taking by pregnant or breastfeeding women. Your leg cramps may continue after your baby is born, but this is less common.
Talk to your health care provider:
As with any pregnancy symptom be sure to make your care giver aware of your leg cramps, particularly if they are regular. If cramping is ever accompanied by discoloration, swelling, heat radiating from the painful area, pain that does not go away with time, or loss of feeling, seek medical attention immediately. You may be experiencing a blood clot, muscular injury, signs of high blood pressure, or another serious medical condition.
Pregnancy is full of annoying and often painful experiences; however, the payoff is by far worth the pain. Just remember, this too will pass, and once it’s over you’ll have a beautiful baby to show for your patience.
Amanda Vin Zant is a contributing women’s health writer.