Getting leg cramps when you’re expecting can be a pain in the, well, leg. But they can also be pretty worrying.
Luckily, GP Dr Sarah Wigmore reassures us that it’s “completely normal to get cramps in your legs during pregnancy.”
“As your muscles bear the increased weight of your baby, they feel the strain,” she explains. “This is combined with the effects that the pregnancy hormone progesterone has on them.”
And if you’re struggling with leg cramps, you’re in good company! According to NHS Choices, around one third of us experience them during pregnancy…
What exactly are they, though?
Leg cramps are your muscles suddenly contracting which causes a sharp pain. This is known as a spasm, which basically means you can’t control the affected muscle.
The cramp can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes. When the spasm passes, you will be able to control the affected muscle again.
And as one MFMer, Smudgetake2, notes, they can be pretty debilitating:
“I never normally get cramp but for the last week or so I have been getting it all the time. Through the night, when sitting and once really badly when driving. It is so ouchy!”
What causes pregnancy leg cramps?
Some experts believe the cramps may be a result of being deficient in certain nutrients – calcium, magnesium or potassium – but there is little hard evidence to back this up.
One thing’s for sure, though – leg cramps will not be harming your baby.
“Like fatigue and heartburn, they’re just another side effect of pregnancy that affects you and not your baby,” confirms Dr Wigmore.
Can I control when a leg cramp will strike?
Unfortunately you can’t dictate when a cramp will come on ?
Cramps can happen at any time, with little or no warning, but for most mums in the MFM Chat, the pain is much worse at night.
“When I’m walking it feels like shin-splints,” explains lucyah. “But I have been waking up about 3 times a night with this painful cramp in my calves.”
GemLou had to agree – she often has to get out of bed, she’s in so much pain:
“I get it most nights in my right leg and foot. I have to get out of bed in pain and walk around the bedroom until it goes.”
How can I get rid of the cramps?
The general consensus is that moving your legs in some way and getting your circulation going will alleviate the worst of the pain.
“The only thing that helps me is to hop round the bedroom,” agrees MFMer Babycakes.
And forum user Zowen recommends standing on a cold floor. “It seems to relax the muscle,” she reckons.
But sometimes, you can’t even talk, let alone walk. Take Shorty2021 – she can control cramps while staying in bed:
“When you feel the cramp coming on (for me I get it when lying down), keep your leg and actual food straight but put the front part of your foot and toes up, towards your knees, for me it stopped the cramp from ever coming on!”
And we really like SarahDevlin’s advice: “Hi all….you’re not alone, I get this too & had it before I was pregnant! Sometimes the calves stay a bit painful for a couple of days after as well! I find thumping DH until he wakes up to massage them helps relieve a bit of pain – at least he can lose sleep too!”
If you’re after official advice, the NHS and Dr Sarah Wigmore say: “You need to stretch the muscle by straightening your leg, heel first and then gently flex your ankles and toes. It might hurt at first, but the pain will gradually subside.”
After the attack has passed, you can try warming the area by rubbing and massaging it gently, or by applying a warm towel or wrapped hot water bottle.
The NHS advises that, after your baby is born, your leg cramps should stop altogether.
How do I avoid getting leg cramps in the first place?
The jury is definitely out on how to best avoid getting pesky cramps in the first place. If, like some believe, they happen because of a lack of potassium, bananas may become your new best friend.
But here are some other top avoidance tips for just before you go to sleep:
- Drink plenty of water (as if you need another reason to get up for a wee at night ?)
- ‘Warm down’ before you go to sleep by doing small leg stretches and ankle circles
- Take a warm bath so your muscles are nice and relaxed
- Some people believe that wearing support tights can help – you could even try retro-style leg warmers.
What to do if leg cramps become constant…
Generally, leg cramps are nothing to be overly concerned about, even though they are more than a tad annoying. They’re just a symptom of pregnancy.
However, if you notice a frequent muscle pain, rather than an occasional cramp, or if you notice swelling or tenderness in your leg, then you should book an urgent appointment with your GP.
While it’s very rare, pregnant women can develop a blood clot, called venous thromboembolism, which lodges in the leg vein. (Rare is the key world here. It’s said to affect approximately 1 in 2000 mums-to-be.)