Leg cramps in Pregnancy: Why and How to stop them

It is common for women to have leg cramps during pregnancy. I think of leg cramps as a sudden and intensely painful night time occurrence and I know that for a lot of pregnant women, leg cramps do tend to happen at night. However, leg cramps in pregnancy do not only happen at night for everyone and my concept of it is not that simple. I like this definition of leg cramps: “sudden tonic or clonic involuntary contractions of the gastrocnemius muscle associated with severe pain”. Interestingly, as compared with other pregnancy-related ailments, women do not usually seek medical help for leg cramps. 

I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have leg cramps come on during the day. I have only ever had pregnancy leg cramps at night. The feeling of being woken up by excruciating pain when you are probably already having an uncomfortable night is the worst. After my first experience with them, I searched for remedies and also wondered about the causes. 

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Here is some of the information I found on the causes of pregnancy leg cramps.

What causes pregnancy leg cramps?

They tend to happen during the second third trimesters, however, the cause of leg cramps in pregnancy is not certain. Still, medical professionals do suggest that the following could be to blame:

RELATED: Totally unexpected second trimester pregnancy symptoms

  • Lactic acid build-up. During pregnancy, there is less blood flow to the lower parts of your body. The reduced blood flow means that lactic acid can build up and cause your muscles to cramp.
  • Reduced circulation. During pregnancy, it is not uncommon for women to become less active. We are lying down and sitting down more and generally moving a bit slower especially the larger the get. This could lead to poor circulation, which increases the chance of developing leg cramps.
  • Electrolyte imbalance. When you have an electrolyte imbalance of phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and potassium, you could start to experience leg cramps.
  • Fatigue. Carrying the weight of your larger uterus and possibly larger overall higher body weight can leave you feeling exhausted or fatigued each day. That fatigue can lead to leg cramps.
  • Pressure of the uterus. Again, reduced muscle active from less movement, combined with the pressure of your growing uterus on your blood vessels, could lead to leg cramps.
  • Blood clots. This is just one of many reasons why you should discuss anything that bothers you with your physician. Pregnancy leg cramps could also signal blood clotting. Particularly where cramping is accompanied by swelling of one leg, you should contact your doctor at once.
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How to prevent pregnancy leg cramps

Try these five preventative measures to stop leg cramping from occurring at any time of the day.

  1. Stay watered. Drink water throughout the day every day. Think of yourself as a plant that needs water throughout the day. It would be useful to keep a bottle of water with you at all times to monitor how much you are consuming. You should be aiming for at least 8 cups of water per day.
  2. Keep moving. If less muscle activity is the cause of poor circulation which could lead to leg cramps in pregnancy, it makes sense that we try to stay as active as we can.
  3. Stretch out. Particularly before bed to prevent pregnancy leg cramps at night, but also at any other time of day, do some calf stretches. The idea is to release tension and keep your calf muscles limber to prevent muscle cramping or reduce the intensity of any cramping.
  4. Eat healthy. This is to prevent a potential lack of the vital minerals your body generally needs to function properly. This might also reduce the likelihood of an enzyme imbalance which could result in cramping.
  5. Try taking a magnesium supplement. The research on the efficacy of magnesium is not entirely conclusive, in my view. You can try it on approval of your doctor though.

Magnesium for pregnancy leg cramps

Magnesium has been found to be an effective therapy or treatment for leg cramps during pregnancy. In a study conducted with seventy three women with pregnancy leg cramps, serum magnesium levels were found to be either at or below recommended levels. This is usually found to be the case with healthy  pregnant women anyway. However, for these seventy three study subjects, supplementing with oral magnesium seemed to reduce the distress from leg cramps. Other research has also found that pregnant women who take magnesium supplements have less intense cramps less often. 

There are other pieces of research, on the other hand, that have not found any difference in frequency of occurrence of leg cramps pre and post-supplementation of oral magnesium. 

How much magnesium to take for leg cramps

The recommended daily dosage is 300mg. Your doctor may suggest you take more than that.

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3 Simple things to do once you get a leg cramp while pregnant

When you are in the throes of that pain, it can be difficult to think straight. However, if you can, try doing one or a combination of these three things when cramping is happening.

RELATED: Important ways for you to relax before you go into labor

relax before labour
  1. Massage. Gently and continuously rub the area to counter the ongoing tension build-up.
  2. Straighten up. Straighten the affected leg, heel out first. Flex your feet and wiggle your toes.
  3. Apply heat. This could be a hot water bottle, for example, that you prepare nightly before bed if you know you get nightly leg cramps.

Post-cramping, if you do notice any swelling or the pain levels do not reduce, you need to consult your doctor.

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