How to Ease Leg Cramps During Pregnancy
April 12, 2021
Pregnancy is filled with weird aches and pains, and unfortunately, leg cramps during pregnancy are no exception. Leg cramps (otherwise known as charley horses) can spring out of nowhere and stop you in your tracks, or even wake you up at night. And we know how precious sleep is! Here’s why you might be experiencing them, what you can do to ease the pain in the moment, and how to lower the odds you’ll have to deal with them again in the future.
For the record, yes, you’re not the only one dealing with this. Nearly half of all women experience leg cramps during pregnancy at some point, and they tend to spring up at night, according to the American Pregnancy Association. “It’s common—a lot of my patients report experiencing them,” says Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida.
While plenty of moms-to-be have leg cramps, the level of discomfort can vary, ranging from annoying to outright debilitating. “Cramps can cause women to result in loss of sleep, reduced well-being and work capacity,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.
While you can technically have leg cramps at any point during your pregnancy, they’re more common in the second and third trimesters. The cause, however, is a little less clear. “We’re not really sure why leg cramps happen in pregnancy,” says Julie Lamppa, APRN, CNM, a certified nurse midwife at Mayo Clinic. But she says there are some theories.
One is that it may be due to a build-up of certain acids (like lactic and pyruvic acid) that cause your muscles to involuntarily contract, leading to those painful cramps, Greves says. Pregnancy weight gain puts more work on your legs than when you’re not pregnant, and that can also increase your risk of cramping, she explains.
You’re also at more risk of becoming dehydrated when you’re expecting, which may also be a factor in those leg cramps during pregnancy, Shepherd says. When your body doesn’t have enough water or sodium, she explains, your muscles can contract and prompt that cramping feeling.
So what can you do when that familiar pain strikes? There are a few easy ways to help ease leg cramps during pregnancy:
• Flex your foot as soon as you feel the cramp coming on. “You want to point your toes up as far as you can bring them, like trying to bring your toes to your shin,” Lamppa says. She recommends holding this position until the cramp calms down.
• Elevate your leg. Try this after you flex your foot to help move things along, Greves says. Even better, try stretching and then elevating your leg.
• Walk it out. This can be a little tricky if you’re having an intense cramp, but movement can help work it out, Lamppa says.
• Massage the cramp. Rubbing the muscle can help relieve the tension (and cramping), Lamppa says.
If you’re having any of the following symptoms along with leg cramps during pregnancy, call your doctor:
- Persistent throbbing in one leg
- Leg swelling
- Redness in your leg
- A leg that’s warm to the touch
These could be a sign of a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that develops within a deep vein in your legs, Shepherd says. That DVT can travel and cause a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that travels to and blocks a portion of your lungs—and it’s a life-threatening emergency. “A leg cramp should not stay painful,” Greves says. “Eventually, it will get better.”
While leg cramps are common during pregnancy, there are a few things you can do to lower your chances of having them:
• Stretch your calf muscles. Stretching them out regularly (think: a few times a day) can help relieve tension in the area that can lead to cramping, Shepherd says.
• Stay physically active. Moving around can help work out the acids that can build up in your leg muscles, Greves says.
• Take a warm shower or bath before bed. This can help relax your muscles, Greves says.
• Drink plenty of water. This is important for pregnancy in general, but can also help lower your risk of cramping, Lamppa says.
• Take a magnesium supplement. There’s some evidence to suggest this can help with leg cramps, Lamppa says. Most prenatal vitamins already contain some magnesium, but you can talk to your doctor about whether you might benefit from additional supplementation.
If leg cramps are a regular thing for you, talk to your doctor. They should be able to help guide you on next steps.
Updated July 2019
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