What causes leg cramps?
Leg cramps – painful spasms in the leg – affect as many as 50 per cent of pregnant women. No-one knows exactly why it should be so common in pregnancy but its prevalence in the later months suggests that the extra weight you are carrying puts pressure on the blood vessels and nerves in the leg.
Another popular belief is that it is symptomatic of being deficient in certain nutrients – calcium, magnesium or potassium – but there is little hard evidence to back this up. Don’t take the presence of cramps as an indication that your baby is lacking substantially in these nutrients and don’t increase any supplements you might already be on. Instead, leg cramps, like breathlessness and heartburn, are one of the physical misfortunes of later pregnancy which affect you and not your baby. Of course, you should still make sure you are getting a good supply of all these nutrients in your diet.
How can they be avoided?
- Keep yourself hydrated.
- Leg cramps often strike at night or as you wake and take the first stretch of the morning. Try doing small leg stretches and ankle circles before going to bed to ‘warm down’ before hours of inactivity. When you wake in the morning, give your calves a good warming rub before an attack strikes.
- Rest with your feet up.
- But do get plenty of exercise and avoiding keeping the same position for long periods at a time, which can make cramps more likely.
- Some people believe that wearing support tights can help with the problem. Certainly you should try to keep your legs warm and might want to try leg warmers on colder nights/early mornings. A hot water bottle on your legs at night may also help.
If you get a leg cramp attack
Milder attacks can be dealt with by standing up and stretching out your leg, lifting your leg up so your toes are stretching and pushing against the floor. You can try walking around in this position (a cold floor can help) or lean against a wall to do this. If you are heavily pregnant, you will not be able to reach out and pull your foot or toes towards you as you might when you get cramp at any other time. In this instance you should ask your partner or another adult for help as a bad attack may not be alleviated by small stretches.
When the attack has passed, warm the area by rubbing and massaging it gently, or by applying a warm towel or wrapped hot water bottle.
If the cramp doesn’t fade after a half-hour or so, or if it is accompanied by swelling, redness or other soreness in your leg then do call your doctor as this could be an indication of a blood clot. A blood clot is unlikely, but it is something to which you are more susceptible during pregnancy and which requires urgent medical attention.