I'm pregnant and I can't stop moving my legs! What's wrong with me?
You're just about to go to sleep, then suddenly something feels like it's literally crawling under your skin and moving about. Your legs feel twitchy and you can't stay still... you just have to get up and move your legs. If you're experiencing this, you probably have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS).
No, it's not something we've made up. RLS is a recognised medical condition, also called Willis-Ekbom disease, that affects the nervous system. Around a quarter of mums-to-be suffer from it, especially in the third trimester, but thankfully it usually disappears pretty quickly after you've given birth.
“We don’t really know why this develops in pregnancy,” says obstetrician Dr Claire Hein. “It’s lumped together with sleep disorders which can develop in pregnancy, alongside wakefulness and general insomnia and is generally associated with the third trimester.”
Who gets RLS?
RLS affects 10% of the general adult population. You're more likely to suffer from it if you're older, a woman or pregnant.
While anyone can get RLS, there is a genetic link so if your mum suffered from it, chances are that you will too. And if you've had it before in a previous pregnancy, you’re more likely to get it again.
RLS most commonly develops in the third trimester although some pregnant women get it from around 20 weeks.
"I'm now 29 weeks + 4 and can't seem to get comfortable or stop shuffling round at night! My legs are really twitchy and "restless" some of the time." peanutsmum
Why is this happening?
No-one really knows why RLS affects pregnant women more than other groups. Primary RLS is hereditary but you can also get secondary RLS that's related to another medical issue, for instance anaemia, high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. In pregnant women, it could just be down to hormones (yes, that old chestnut) although there is some research to suggest that low iron and folate levels may trigger the onset of RLS (folate is a B-complex vitamin necessary for maintaining brain and mental health); however, this isn’t always the case.
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“Iron deficiency has been listed as a link with restless legs but it is an imperfect association - not all anaemic women have restless legs and vice versa. Either way, it is important to avoid/ treat anaemia in pregnancy for many other reasons,” says Dr Hein.
What does Restless Leg Syndrome feel like?
RLS isn't like having aching, tired legs nor is it like pins and needles but if you have RLS, one thing's for sure, it will probably be driving you crazy! It often starts with an unpleasant feeling in your feet, calves and thighs like a creeping or crawling sensation on or under your skin...imagine spiders running up your legs! You then feel an irresistible urge to move your legs and sometimes your arms to make the discomfort go away. In extreme cases, your legs and arms may jerk - these are called periodic limb movements.
RLS occurs most often in the evenings or just as you’re about to drop off to sleep. Because it’s worse at night, sleep is a big problem for RLS suffers and this can be pretty distressing, especially when you're pregnant.
What can I do to stop RLS?
Unfortunately, there's no cure for RLS but there are some things you can do to help manage the symptoms and get a better night's sleep. Some experts believe that there’s a nutritional link and by upping your iron intake you can help relieve the symptoms.
Midwifery lecturer Maggie Evans suggests, “To build up you iron stores, eat more red meat, lentils, soya, leafy green veg and dried apricots. And drink orange juice as vitamin C helps with iron absorption”.
Eliminate alcohol and caffeine completely from your diet in the evenings although if you're pregnant, you'll probably be doing this already! Keep a diary to see if there are any triggers for your RLS symptoms - some medications and herbal remedies can worsen the effects. Find some relaxation activities that help relieve the symptoms or distract you from the discomfort such as walking, stretching, hot or cold baths and showers, massage, applying creams to your legs, even knitting!
What our mums say:
"I suffered terribly with restless legs when I was pregnant last year and my mum told me to drink tonic water and someone else recommended that I eat a banana before bed as well!" Pink cupcake
"I found that if I kept my legs high up for about an hour before bed that helped me, I'd lay on the sofa and try as best as I could (with a bump!) to get my legs at least on the arms on the sofa but up to the back of the sofa if I could." pink_supergirl
Will it go away after the birth?
Yes. The good news is that for most women, the symptoms go away after birth. For some, it takes a couple of months but others can be free from RLS within two weeks of having their baby.