Leg cramps are one of the classic symptoms of pregnancy. So why is it that you often get them now, even if you never had trouble with charley-horses before? Let’s run through what causes leg cramps during pregnancy and how to cope, plus the steps you can take to prevent them.
What causes leg cramps during pregnancy?
Leg cramps are caused by a muscle (or muscles) in your leg suddenly contracting. There are three main factors of pregnancy that contribute to this.
Pregnancy can make it harder for you to move around in your usual way and get enough exercise. If you get too sedentary, this can make you more susceptible to leg cramps. As your baby grows and your belly expands, this can put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels that flow into your legs.
Leg cramps are common when you’re low on certain essential minerals in your diet – particularly calcium and magnesium. When you’re pregnant, your baby gets first dibs on nutrients, so it’s easy to wind up not getting as much as you need.
Physical changes during pregnancy
As your pregnancy progresses in the later months and your belly gets bigger, your pelvis loosens up and shifts to get ready for the upcoming delivery. This can cause you to unconsciously shift your gait when you walk, putting you in a posture where you’re putting extra pressure on the muscles in your pelvis, back and abdomen. This has an indirect effect on connected muscles, which can contribute to leg cramps; particularly in the calves.
Preventing leg cramps during pregnancy
Support your pelvis
It’s now possible to buy pregnancy support belts, which are designed to help you hold your pelvis in the proper alignment. These belts aren’t just helpful in leg and back pain – some even boast that they’re able to help prevent stretch marks as your belly grows! Check first with your OB-GYN if a support belt is right for you, but if you get the all-clear, these devices could be just what you’ve been looking for.
Watch your diet
Low blood levels of magnesium and potassium can contribute to leg cramps, so make sure you’re getting enough. Calcium-rich foods include dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese), leafy greens (like broccoli and kale), and canned fish with soft, edible bones (like canned salmon and sardines). Great sources of magnesium include soy products like tofu and soy flour, as well as fruits and leafy greens. You can include these as part of a varied diet during your pregnancy.
Once you’re into the second trimester and you have the go-ahead from your OB-GYN, a bit of light exercise could help with your pregnancy leg cramps. Walking is a great place to start, as you not only get your blood moving around again, but you can get a bit of fresh air and enjoy the scenery while you’re at it.
Just be sure to take a water bottle with you to make sure you don’t end up dehydrated, and stop to rest immediately if you feel any tightness in your belly. Take your cell phone and wallet along just in case you need anything, and you’re good to go.
When to see a doctor for pregnancy leg cramps
Cramps are caused by a muscle contracting and sticking that way, so as a first step, it needs to be relaxed for the discomfort to stop. Try stretching your leg out very slowly and gently when you get a cramp: you can use your hands to lift it into the right position, if you need. You can also massage the area gently, and use heating or cooling pack to relieve some of the pain and tension.
However, if none of this helps at all, or you see swelling or redness, see a doctor right away. In some rare cases, this can be a sign of a blood clot, so it’s better to be on the safe side.
Don’t let pregnancy legs cramp your style!
Pregnancy legs cramps can be rough, particularly if the people around you don’t realize how debilitating the pain can be. On top of that, you might start getting anxious about when the next charley-horse will strike. Even so, try not to let it weigh too heavy on your mind: following a few prevention methods will give you the best chance of avoiding leg cramps.