Women's Healthcare Topics

I'm Having Horrible Leg Cramps. What can I do?

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Nighttime Leg Cramps

Leg cramps are one of the major reasons that pregnant women experience sleep disturbances at night. Nighttime leg cramps do cause pain and are associated with sudden muscle spasms or tighten. The cramping pain can wake you up from sleep and may last for seconds to many minutes.

Leg cramps are a normal pregnancy symptom that often strike in the second and third trimesters. Leg cramps can get worse as your belly gets larger. While you may experience uncomfortable leg cramps during the day, they're more of a nighttime problem.

What Causes Leg Cramps During Pregnancy?

Most nighttime leg cramps in pregnancy do not have a cause that doctors can find.Some of the possible causes include:

  • A leg or foot shape that is different from normal. Example flat feet.

  • If you are sitting in an awkward position or sitting too long in one position.

  • Walking on concrete floors for long periods of time.

  • If you do not drink enough fluids and become dehydrated.

  • Physical exercise that you are not use to doing.

  • Low magnesium blood level can cause leg cramps.
Learn about the causes and how to get comfort from leg cramps in pregnancy.

Doctors aren't sure what causes leg cramps in pregnancy, but one theory is that it's caused by the muscles in your leg being exhausted from having to support your pregnancy weight. Another theory is your heavy uterus compresses the blood vessels that transport blood from your lower extremities to your heart. This compression can result in leg cramps.

Experts once believed that a calcium deficiency caused leg cramps. Doctors no longer believe this. A well-known research study found that pregnant women who took calcium didn't get any more relief from their leg cramps, compared to pregnant women who took a placebo. It is suggested now that low blood or serum magnesium levels can cause leg cramps.

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How Do I Get Relief from Leg Cramps?

  • Riding a stationary bike for a few minutes before bed – If you normally get little exercise, this might help.

  • Doing stretching exercises

  • Wearing shoes with firm support, especially at the back of your foot around your heel

  • Keeping bed covers loose at the foot of your bed and NOT tucked in

  • Drinking plenty of water

  • Limiting the amount of caffeine you drink

  • Staying cool when you exercise, and NOT exercising in very hot weather or hot rooms

Since dehydration is a potential trigger of leg cramps, you may be able to minimize this uncomfortable pregnancy symptom by drinking plenty of water and fluids. You may also get some relief by walking every day (unless your doctor has advised you against exercise); rotating your ankles and wiggling your toes; and stretching your calf muscles several times throughout the day.

Try to avoid getting too tired, as this can sometimes lead to leg cramps. Some women find that taking a warm bath before they go to sleep helps relax their muscles. If you have a willing partner, ask him to massage your leg before you fall asleep.

However, even with all these preventative measures, you can still get a leg cramp. When you experience a cramp, you should keep your leg straight and gently point your toes towards your head. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it will gradually relieve the pain. You might be able to get some relief by taking a hot shower with water spraying on the cramp for 5 minutes, or taking a warm bath. You can also try rubbing the cramp with ice wrapped in a towel.

When to Call the Doctor

Leg cramps are often a normal pregnancy symptom, and they should go away without any medical intervention. However, sometimes leg cramps can be a sign that something more serious is at play, such as a blood clot. (Blood clots are normally rare, but your risk of getting a clot is higher when you're pregnant, due to all those cardiovascular changes in your body.)

If you find that your leg cramps are severely painful; they occur too frequently; or they come with leg swelling, tenderness, warmth, or redness, contact your doctor right away.


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