Pregnancy can be the best time in your life. Knowing that you are about to share your life with a petite version of yourself can make you forget the discomforts, including those leg cramps that wake you in the middle of the night.
Leg cramps during pregnancy, along with unsightly varicose veins and puffiness, are some of the ways our legs can be affected when expecting a baby. Even though these involuntary muscle contractions can cause short sharp pains, they do not last forever, and there are ways you can reduce cramping.
I discovered that leg cramps are not so common in the first trimester but can be experienced by pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. We are going to look at some of the ways you can treat, and in some cases, prevent leg cramps during pregnancy.
Why do you get leg cramps when you are pregnant?
When you start to experience leg cramps during your pregnancy, you might worry about something more serious when it's usually a perfectly normal symptom for many women.
Leg cramps while you are pregnant, are known as secondary leg cramps, and they can be caused by:
- Changes in your blood circulation
- Weight gain
- Mineral deficiencies.
Cramping legs mainly occur during the night when you are sleeping or resting, and around 50% of women get them.
The second and third trimester of pregnancy is where you begin to experience the most changes in your body physiology, and it is also the time when leg cramps can start. One of the significant changes in your body is the increase in the blood circulating during pregnancy.
Blood volume increases along with the flow rate to meet the demands of your growing baby and placenta. According to this scientific journal article, cardiac output can increase by up to 45% by week 24 of your pregnancy compared to pre-pregnancy levels. Increased in blood volume and cardiac output can slow the circulation to your legs, causing nocturnal leg cramps.
Another reason for a decrease in blood flow to your legs could be to do with the way you sleep. When you are sleeping, sometimes the weight of your pregnant belly can slow the flow of blood to your legs. It is usually recommended that you avoid sleeping on your back to take the baby weight off your organs and veins.
Other reasons why you could be experiencing leg cramps include:
- Weight gain – pregnancy and non-pregnancy weight
- Mineral deficiencies – calcium, potassium, and magnesium
- Dehydration or over-hydration
What deficiency causes muscle cramps in pregnancy?
Mineral deficiencies, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium, can cause muscle cramps during pregnancy.
Leg cramps during pregnancy usually occur in the second and third trimesters. They often happen when you are sleeping, and they are generally nothing to worry about. Reasons for leg cramps can range from a change in your blood circulation to mineral deficiencies and a lack of hydration.
Are leg cramps bad during pregnancy?
Leg cramps can be bad during pregnancy, and the pain has been likened to a clenched knot in your calf. The pain of leg cramps can come on suddenly and take you by surprise.
The severity of pain and frequency of leg cramps during pregnancy differs for everyone. They are usually not to be concerned about. If you have previously had leg cramps, you will be familiar with the pain if you haven't experienced leg cramps before they could take your breath away.
Leg cramps can be so painful because it is the sudden shortening of one of your major leg muscles. The calf muscle spasms involuntarily and causes a sharp pain that can last from a few seconds up to 10 minutes in length.
The spasming muscle cannot be controlled, but once the spasm passes, you should be able to control the affected muscle once again.
These uncomfortable secondary leg cramps can occur in your calf or inner thigh (adductor) muscles. They usually happen during the night when you are sleeping, and they are not much fun.
Leg cramps during pregnancy can be bad, but they are prevalent in pregnant women. The severity of the pain can vary from person to person. Sometimes it can be experienced as a short sharp pain or spasm in your calf muscle.
Leg cramps during pregnancy while sleeping
Waking to a ‘Charley horse' is not a pleasant experience. A charley horse is another name for a leg cramp. When you are awakened in the night with a painful leg cramp during your pregnancy, you are not alone.
You may experience pregnancy leg cramps at night. When your body is most relaxed, this is the time your leg muscles could contract suddenly. One of the reasons for this is that we often sleep with our legs extended away from our bodies in a position known as plantar flexion.
While there are many reasons for secondary cramps during pregnancy, the position you sleep in could contribute to the frequency of these annoying spasms.
The best positions for sleeping when pregnant that could prevent the occurrence of leg cramps include:
- The "SOS" – (sleep on side), as this provides good blood circulation for Mum and bub. It is considered best to sleep on your left side.
- Use pillows to support your baby bump or place one between your knees.
- Prop up your upper body to help with easier breathing
- Always keep your legs slightly bent to avoid the plantar flexion position.
Avoid sleeping on your stomach or back as both these positions can cause breathing problems, digestive issues, or low blood pressure in pregnant women in the last two trimesters. As previously discussed, the pressure can also slow your circulation and cause leg cramps.
Leg cramps during pregnancy are usually experienced at night-time while we sleep. We have nocturnal cramps because we are in a relaxed state, and sometimes circulation of blood is disrupted due to the position we sleep in.
5 natural remedies for leg cramps during pregnancy
When you are pregnant, the best remedy for leg cramps is usually a natural one that you can perform at home.
Natural remedies can range from a simple stretch to a massage with essential oils. As with most muscular pain stretching massage and heat or cold can relieve a cramp.
Let's look at 5 ways you can remedy a pregnancy leg cramps naturally.
- Essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, peppermint, rosemary, and clove can provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic treatment to the affected area. You can get some relief when applied topically and massaged into the calf during or following a cramp.
- Stretching your calf and legs – every night before going to bed, stretch your calf by facing the wall to perform a calf raise and then place your toe at an angle on a wall and bend your knee to stretch the other direction.
- Apply heat or ice to the area – use a heat or ice pack to apply to your calf during or following a leg cramp.
- Massaging the area – You can either massage the area yourself or get someone else to do it. A 30-second message to the muscles in the back of your calf can help relieve a leg cramp.
- Stay hydrated – Drinking enough water is vital during pregnancy, even without leg cramps. In the next section, we will look at some of the teas you could drink to remain hydrated.
A natural remedy you can use at home will always be the preferred way to treat complaints such as leg cramps when pregnant. There are a few simple ways to relieve leg cramps, including using essential oils, stretching, applying heat, massage and remaining hydrated.
Pregnancy safe teas for leg cramps
Good hydration is vital when pregnant and not just as a remedy for leg cramps. Sipping a cup of hot or cold tea can be one of pregnancy’s little pleasures!
Some teas are safe to drink when pregnant and have properties to ease or prevent cramping. Some teas can increase amino acids and stimulate circulation. That includes the following:
Chamomile tea is a muscle relaxer
Chamomile Tea has the properties necessary to increase your body's amino acids or glycine levels. Glycine acts as a muscle relaxant to soothe and release the tightened calf or abductor muscles you experience as part of nocturnal leg cramps.
You may have also heard that chamomile can help you get a good night’s sleep which is beneficial considering leg cramps wake you up at night. This science article discusses how chamomile is helpful in the treatment of muscle spasms.
Read these articles for more benefits of drinking chamomile tea during and after pregnancy.
- Best teas for digestion
- The 10 best teas for bloating in Australia
- How can chamomile tea help my baby?
Ginger is commonly used to treat leg cramps during pregnancy
Ginger Tea stimulates blood circulation and is commonly used to treat leg cramps during pregnancy. It is known as a natural pain reliever and can safely be consumed. This study shows how ginger reduces muscle pain and inflammation following exercise.
The active ingredients in ginger are phytochemicals known as gingerols and shogaol. These ingredients have been found to relieve muscle pain and are safe for pregnant women to consume.
To read up some more about the pain-relieving properties of ginger, as well as other ways ginger can benefit you, read these articles.
Turmeric can instantly stop leg cramps
Turmeric Tea is known for its inflammatory properties. The curcumin in turmeric is sometimes referred to as an inflammation blocker. The properties of turmeric can also improve poor blood circulation, which is why leg cramps occur during pregnancy.
Not only can you drink turmeric in a tea, but it can also be applied topically to the painful area, in this case, your calf muscle, for pain relief. When consuming turmeric, it is recommended that you pair it with black pepper to make it more easily absorbed into your system. Also available in a powder, turmeric can be used to cook or whip up a turmeric latte.
For further information about the exceptional properties of turmeric, check out these articles.
- Get rid of acid reflux when pregnant
- Herbs to get rid of water retention in legs
- How I managed chronic pain with turmeric powder
If you need some more information about these teas and others safe for pregnant women to consume, read this article.
Teas such as chamomile, ginger and turmeric are safe for pregnant women to drink during pregnancy. The combined properties of these three terrific teas can help you manage your pregnancy leg cramps.
Managing Pregnancy Leg Cramps with Magnesium
If you think you might need a supplement when pregnant to help you with your leg cramps, it could be as easy as eating certain foods to enrich your diet.
A lack of minerals can be the cause of pregnancy leg cramps. When your baby is growing, it can deplete your body with:
Magnesium plays a role in muscle contraction and relaxation, and it can be taken as a supplement or obtained through magnesium-rich foods.
When you have a magnesium deficiency, it can mean that your muscles contract but cannot relax on their own. It can be pretty difficult to test for a magnesium deficiency as the magnesium in our bodies is stored in muscle and soft tissue and not in the bloodstream.
If you are not comfortable taking a supplement, you can bathe in a magnesium bath or obtain some of your daily intakes by making dietary changes. We will be discussing some of the foods that are good for leg cramps in the next section.
This study shows some mineral supplements such as calcium and magnesium can reduce the occurrence of leg cramps in pregnancy and that they are an effective intervention.
Magnesium is essential for maintaining muscles, bones, and soft tissue when you are pregnant. A magnesium deficiency could be causing your nocturnal leg cramps, and a supplement could help prevent or control the cramps.
What foods are good for leg cramps during pregnancy?
Just as sipping delicious tea can be pleasurable when pregnant, so too can eating good healthy food you can prepare at home or eat out at your favourite restaurant.
Eating a balanced diet is essential for pregnant women. The food and drinks you consume nourish your unborn baby and can be a preventative or treatment for pregnancy symptoms like leg cramps during gestation.
We have discussed the importance of magnesium to prevent muscle spasms caused by leg cramps during pregnancy. Here are some foods that are rich in magnesium.
- Pumpkin and chia seeds
- Nuts – almonds, cashews, and peanuts
- Cereal – oatmeal, shredded wheat
- Spinach and dark leafy greens
- Milk – cows and soya
- Fruits – Bananas and papaya
- Potatoes with skin on
- Kidney beans
- Yoghurt – plain
- Brown rice
- Chicken breast
- Fish – Salmon
Dehydration can also cause leg cramps, so drinking liquids high in electrolytes could also help with preventing cramps. If you are dehydrated, you could have the following signs.
- Darkened urine
- Dry mouth
- Irritability or confusion
Alternatively, sometimes we can become over hydrated when we drink too much water, which flushes all the essential minerals from our bodies. Overhydration can be another reason we can get leg cramps while pregnant.
You could try some of these delicious natural drinks:
- Coconut water – naturally high in electrolytes
- Watermelon – a sweet and delicious way to stay hydrated.
- Banana smoothies
- Tomato juice
Electrolytes not only help you by reducing the likelihood of leg cramps, but they are also a good source of the mineral’s potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium.
Do prenatal vitamins help with leg cramps?
Taking vitamins before you get pregnant does not appear to make a difference in the occurrence of leg cramps. A healthy balanced diet before, during and after pregnancy of foods high in vitamins and minerals will be more beneficial.
Food and drinks rich in magnesium and electrolytes can help prevent or treat leg cramps when pregnant. Becoming dehydrated or over-hydrated can be the cause of nocturnal leg cramps.
Immediate Relief of Leg Cramps During Pregnancy
When your calf cramps in the middle of the night, you will be happy to know that there are some ways you can get relief.
For immediate relief of leg cramps, there are some things you can do in the first 30 seconds to relieve or stop a cramping muscle. These suggestions can be carried out at home and require very little equipment.
- Sit on the side of your bed and put some weight on the affected leg.
- Massage the contracted muscle
- Stretch the muscle and hold the position until the cramp stops
- Apply a heat pack to the affected area
- Use a cold pack
Light exercise can help, so walking around the house before returning to bed can also help with a fast recovery.
Will exercise help my pregnancy leg cramps?
Yes, it will. Performing some exercise during the day could make the difference if you have leg cramps at night. The following Australian Government guidelines for pregnancy physical activity and exercise has some suggestions for pregnant women.
For immediate relief from leg cramps when pregnant, there are several steps you can take within the first 30 seconds to relieve the pain. Daily activity and exercise can also help to alleviate nocturnal leg cramps.
When should I worry about leg cramps in pregnancy?
We have discussed how leg cramps in the last two trimesters of pregnancy are normal, but what if you are worried that your cramps are more than a typical pregnancy symptom?
You should only worry about your leg cramps if they are constant and the pain does not ease after 10 minutes despite massage or stretching, and they are accompanied by numbness, swelling or ongoing tenderness in your leg. If this is the case, you should see your GP.
Leg cramps during pregnancy, accompanied by swelling and tenderness, can be a sign of underlying vascular problems such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or a plaque build-up in your arteries.
Pregnancy increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or blood clots; however, it is extremely rare. DVT is described as a heavy or painful feeling in your leg, like a cramp that won't go away. It can be a possibility up to 3 months following delivery. You should seek medical advice immediately.
Leg cramps can cause concern if the pain is constant and does not ease. Deep vein thrombosis is a risk during pregnancy and three months after delivery; however, it rarely occurs. If you suspect your cramp is not normal, seek medical advice.
Pregnancy can be a time of great happiness and joy for you and your family. As we know, there are many physiological changes as your body accommodates the latest member of your family to be.
Along with pregnancy's usual signs and symptoms, some women can also experience leg cramps in the last two trimesters of pregnancy. These inconvenient and sometimes painful muscle cramps are very common, and they can affect your calf and inner thigh muscles while you are sleeping.
There are several natural remedies and treatments that women can carry out at home. These include stretching, massage, sipping relaxing herbal teas, such as chamomile, ginger and turmeric and a healthy diet high in magnesium.
Drinks high in electrolytes can also be beneficial for maintaining hydration because dehydration is another reason you may be experiencing nocturnal leg cramps.
Suppose you find that your cramps are continuous, and the pain does not disappear. In that case, you should seek medical advice to eliminate the very rare possibility of deep vein thrombosis or blocked arteries. These complications can occur late in pregnancy, right through to up to 3 months after delivery.
As with most pregnancy symptoms, you can be assured that leg cramps should stop waking you at night once you have given birth and your body has returned to its pre-pregnancy condition. In the meantime, ask for that massage and treat yourself to a relaxing cup of tea. You deserve it!