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What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome in Pregnancy?

Experiencing restless legs during pregnancy? You’re far from alone. Here’s why it’s happening and what to do about it.
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Updated January 8, 2024
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Pregnancy comes with a slew of changes to your body. While some, like a growing belly, are exciting and expected, others can catch you off guard. One potential problem that might pop up during your nine-month journey: restless legs syndrome (RLS).

Restless legs syndrome can give you a nagging urge to move your legs, making it hard to sleep at night (something that’s already difficult in pregnancy!). So what causes restless legs syndrome in pregnancy, and—more importantly—what can you do to get relief? Here’s what to know.

What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome—or Willis-Ekbom Disease—is a neurological disorder that causes uncomfortable feelings in your legs and an urge to move them, notes the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). While the condition isn’t exclusive to pregnancy, hormonal changes can make it more common during this time, says W. Christopher Winter, MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine physician and the owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic in Charlottesville, Virginia.

People can experience restless legs syndrome in different ways, Winter says. “It’s generally described as a restless or uncomfortable feeling in the lower extremities, although I have heard it described in virtually any body part,” he says. “Some people describe it as an internal tickle, or the feeling that ants or worms are wiggling inside of you.”

Symptoms also tend to be worse at night, as restless legs syndrome causes an “urge in your legs that makes you want to move them while you’re trying to sleep, which frequently causes a pregnant person to have trouble falling asleep,” says Amanda Perry, MSN, CNM, a certified nurse midwife at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

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What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome During Pregnancy?

Unfortunately, pregnancy can raise your risk of having restless legs syndrome. The reason for this link is still being explored, but it likely has to do with the chemical and hormonal changes that happen in your body during this time. Having lower levels of iron and/or folate can also be a factor, Winter says. Moreover, anxiety is also associated with restless legs syndrome, Perry adds.

Some medications, including certain anti-nausea drugs, may make symptoms of restless legs syndrome in pregnancy worse. If you’re taking medication for nausea or morning sickness and experiencing RLS, it’s important to flag this with your healthcare provider.

When Does Restless Legs Syndrome Start in Pregnancy?

Technically, restless legs syndrome can start at any point in your pregnancy, however “it’s most common during the third trimester,” Perry says. Moreover, it may worsen as you approach your due date and delivery.

How to Help Restless Legs Syndrome During Pregnancy

You don’t need to just soldier through symptoms if you’re dealing with restless legs syndrome while pregnant. “Most of the time, nonpharmacologic approaches help in lessening restless legs syndrome,” Perry says. In other words, you may not need medication to feel better.

Perry recommends the following tips to help alleviate symptoms:

Increasing your iron and folate intake may also help, Winter says, in addition to eating potassium-rich foods like bananas, spinach and potatoes. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements.

Are there safe medication options for restless legs in pregnancy?

Experts recommend making some lifestyle changes before considering medication for restless legs in pregnancy. “While there are some medications that a pregnant person’s provider is able to prescribe, these are rarely needed and only normally considered if someone’s sleep is greatly affected,” Perry says.

When Will Restless Leg Syndrome Go Away in Pregnancy?

Restless legs syndrome is uncomfortable, but it usually improves after the pregnancy is over. In fact, the NINDS says it usually disappears within four weeks of delivery.

When to See Your Doctor About Restless Legs in Pregnancy

If you’re experiencing restless legs syndrome in pregnancy, it’s important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider. They’ll do an evaluation to make sure there’s nothing else contributing to your symptoms and help you personalize a plan to find relief.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

Sources

Amanda Perry, MSN, CNM, is a certified nurse midwife at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Belmont University and earned her master’s degree in nurse-midwifery from Vanderbilt University.

W. Christopher Winter, M.D., is a neurologist and sleep medicine physician who currently owns and practices at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s also the author of several books, including The Sleep Solution and The Rested Child, as well as host of the podcast Sleep Unplugged with Dr. Chris Winter. He earned his medical degree from Emory University and completed his neurology residency at the University of Virginia.

Learn how we ensure the accuracy of our content through our editorial and medical review process.

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