It’s hard enough being pregnant in the hot summer months, without the added extra of suffering from leg cramps. This summer during the particularly warm spells I have had numerous clients telling me about their interrupted night’s sleep due to cramping and asking why it happens.
Leg cramps are painful involuntary muscle contractions which typically affect the calf, foot or both. These are very common during pregnancy, with 1 in 3 expectant mothers suffering from them (particularly at night during the second and third trimesters), with cramping can last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes.
Why do I get leg cramps?
The truth is, nobody really knows for sure the cause of leg cramps. There are several theories but the exact cause of them still isn’t clear.
During pregnancy your body will experience numerous changes which may in turn increase the likelihood of you suffering from leg cramps. Some theories as to why cramps occur include:
· Increased pressure being put on the muscles due to carrying increased weight causes a strain (this may be why cramps are more prevalent in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters)
· Your uterus puts more pressure on the main vein from your legs, particularly when you’re lying on your back
· One of the pregnancy hormones “progesterone” can affect the muscle tone in the legs.
· Some studies suggest a nutrient imbalance may cause or exacerbate cramps.
· Shortage of salts and nutrients in the bloodstream
· Dehydration and a change in mineral levels (e.g. lack of calcium, magnesium or potassium)
Is there anything I can do to prevent leg cramps?
Although evidence surrounding leg cramps is lacking, there are several methods which are thought to help reduce the likelihood of leg cramps occurring.
1. Stretching calf muscles
· Stretching before bed may help. Try a few calf stretches (youtube is a great place to find examples) and see if this makes a difference for you.
2. Stay active
· Obviously this one is within reason as the further you get along in your pregnancy, the least likely you are to want to exercise. Even a gentle walk now and again to keep the muscles active could help you out though.
3. Increasing your magnesium levels
· Limited research has shown that increasing your magnesium intake could help with leg cramps, whether you do this through a supplement or by consuming magnesium rich foods such as whole grains, beans, dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Please seek the advice of your physician before taking any supplements during your pregnancy.
4. Stay hydrated
5. Wear proper footwear
· Choose comfortable, supportive shoes where possible.
6. Try to avoid sitting or standing in the same position for too long, and not cross your legs when sitting.
7. Take a warm bath before bed
8. Once in bed, allow your feet space to move around, and try not to sleep with your toes pointing downwards as this can make cramps worse. Also, you can try raising your feet (prop them up on a pillow).
How can I ease cramp when I get it?
There are a few simple ways to try and ease cramp. They may not all work for you but give them a go and hopefully you’ll find some relief!
1. Stretch the calf muscle on the affected side
2. Walk around on a flat surface and then elevate your legs (this might help to prevent the cramp from returning).
· As soon as your foot is flat against the floor, the cramping should start to relieve. If your bump is too big to manage this, try to get your partner to push your foot flat to provide the same kind of movement as standing up.
3. Hot shower/ bath
4. Ice or muscle massage
Should I be worried?
Cramps can be completely harmless however there are instances where you should seek medical advice.
· If your cramps cause deep, lingering pain with accompanying redness, swelling or heat, or if the area feels warm to touch.
· If the pain is constant and doesn’t go away
These symptoms could be indicative of venous thromboembolism (a blood clot in the leg veins). This is rare in pregnancy, only seen in 1 or 2 in 1000 pregnancies, however it must be taken very seriously, and medical attention should be sought immediately. If you have any concerns about your cramp, ask your GP for more advice.