Leg cramps are a common pregnancy complaint that affects around half of all pregnant women, usually in the second and third trimesters. Although the direct cause of leg cramps is still unknown, leg cramps can be brought on by decreased circulation (from weight gain and hormone changes), dehydration, and the pressure the growing fetus places on the nerves and blood vessels. You can help prevent or treat leg cramps while pregnant by using multiple strategies.
Leg cramps are a sudden tightening of the muscles, which can cause intense pain. Stretching has been shown to be one of the most reliable ways of preventing or relieving leg cramping. Focus on stretches for your calves and feet, and make sure to stretch before bed, as well as before and after exercise. Avoid any stretches that require you to lay on your back. Try some of the following basic leg stretches:
Seated calf stretch: Gather 2 chairs and a scarf or towel. Sit down on 1 chair and place a foot on the second. Wrap the towel or scarf around the ball of your foot. Begin pulling the towel or scarf towards you. You should feel the stretch in the muscles of your calf and in your foot. Stay in this position 30 seconds and switch legs.
Standing calf stretch: Stand on a flat surface wearing shoes with a firm grip, about 2 to 3 feet (.61 to .91 m) in front of a wall. Lift your arms in front of you and set your hands on the wall. Slowly lean forward until you feel the stretch in your calf muscles. To finish the stretch, walk your hands back up the wall until you are standing straight.
Spend 30 minutes a day on exercise.
Light exercise can help improve your circulation and reduce leg cramps as well as help you improve your core strength, tone your muscles and prepare for labor.The ideal exercise in pregnancy gets your heart pumping and keeps you supple, without causing you or your baby too much physical stress.
Many exercises can be done in or around your house. An easy 30 minute walk is a great way to get outside. Walking keeps you fit without jarring your knees and ankles, and gives your heart a workout if you walk briskly. It is safe throughout your pregnancy and can be built into your every-day routine.
Strength building exercises, such as squats, push-ups, or leg lifts can be easy to perform in the living room or bedroom.
Athletic centers often offer specially designed programs for pregnant women, such as water aerobics or prenatal yoga. These activities can help to maintain muscle tone and flexibility and are kinder to your joints than more vigorous types of exercise.
Make sure to consult a health care provider before starting any exercise program.
Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time.
Alternate periods of activity with periods of rest. Make sure to take frequent breaks to walk or stretch if you have a desk job.
Elevate your feet as often as possible.Putting your feet up can help to dispel the accumulation of fluid in your legs.
Use breaks to sit and elevate your legs if you must stand throughout the day.
Rotate your ankles and wiggle your toes when you sit, eat dinner, or watch TV.
Wear proper footwear.
Choose shoes with comfort, support, and utility in mind. Also consider support or compression stockings. Stockings help reduce swelling, increase blood circulation in the legs and ankles, and can help prevent leg cramps.
It might help to wear shoes with a long counter — the firm part of the shoe that surrounds the heel.
Wear support stockings to bed to alleviate night cramps.
Stretch as soon as you feel a cramp coming on.
Straighten your leg slowly, pushing through your heel, and wiggle your toes to help alleviate pain during a cramp. It might hurt at first, but it will ease the spasm and the pain will gradually go away.
Apply heat to the affected area.
Heat can loosen muscles and improve circulation. Use a warm towel, rice sock, electric heating pad, or hot water bottle.
A warm bath before bed can also help to alleviate leg spasms and soothe stiff muscles. Leg cramps are more frequent at night, when fatigue and fluid accumulation are at their peak.
Try a compress made from a tea towel soaked in warm water. Wring out the excess water and wrap it around the affected area.
Cold temperatures may also ease symptoms. Try standing on cold kitchen tiles to alleviate the pain.
Consult a doctor if the pain is intense or doesn’t go away.
Really bad cramps (like a Charley horse) can cause pain for a few days, and that’s nothing to worry about. But in rare cases, the pain may be caused by a blood clot, massaging it could make it worse or allow it to travel.
Drink adequate fluids to prevent dehydration.
Keeping your muscles hydrated will help to prevent cramps. Aim for at least 8 glasses of water a day, and make sure to drink more if you are exercising or living in a hot climate.
Keep an eye on the color of your urine. If it is a dark yellow, you may not be getting enough water.
Get a prenatal massage.
Massages can help improve circulation and reduce swelling, and it can be a complementary part of your prenatal care.
Special concerns exist for pregnant women receiving massages. It is important to tell the massage therapist that you are pregnant so that you can be on your side during the massage.
Verify that your massage therapist is a licensed prenatal massage therapist. Some doctors hesitate to advise massage during pregnancy because there is a huge variation in training. Not all states have laws requiring a set minimum training for a massage therapist, regardless of whether or not the therapist’s client is pregnant.
Consider taking vitamin supplements.
Some research has shown that a magnesium supplement may help prevent leg cramps during pregnancy. You might also consider eating more magnesium-rich foods, such as: whole grains,beans, dried fruits, nuts and seeds.
Avoid calcium supplements.Though it’s certainly important to get enough calcium, there’s no good evidence that taking extra calcium will help prevent leg cramps during pregnancy. In fact, in one well-designed study, pregnant women taking calcium got no more relief from leg cramps than those taking a placebo.
Be sure to consult a health care provider or your gynecologist before taking any supplements.