Leg Cramps in Pregnancy


by Martha Highfill, CNM

One of the common discomforts in pregnancy is leg cramping.  Leg cramps usually occur during the night time and can greatly affect a woman’s sleeping habits.  Some women are awoken during sleep with leg cramping with the only relief coming from movement of the affected leg.  When the foot is dorsiflexed (or when the toes are flexed towards the knee), the cramp is usually relieved.  Leg cramps often occur in one leg at a time (Hensley, 2009).  Although leg cramps do not cause any long term damage to the muscle, they may be very painful and disrupt sleep.  This can be quite troublesome for many pregnant women (Young & Jewell, 2011).

How common are leg cramps in pregnancy?
Leg cramps affect 30 to 50% of pregnant women during their pregnancy especially in the third trimester (Hensley, 2009; Young & Jewell, 2011).

What causes leg cramping in pregnancy?
It is not clear what exactly causes leg cramps in pregnancy.  They often occur in women that are physically active prior to and during pregnancy.  Some causes of leg cramping may be excessive exercise, little to no physical activity, dehydration, inadequate magnesium intake, and inadequate calcium intake (Hensley, 2009).  It has been suggested that slower blood circulation in the legs in pregnancy may contribute to leg cramps.  The pregnancy hormone progesterone makes the veins weaker during pregnancy which could lead to leg cramping, varicose veins, as well as other common discomforts in pregnancy (Young & Jewell, 2011).

What can I do if I have leg cramps in pregnancy?
Getting 30 minutes of exercise every day while pregnant will help improve overall mood, help blood circulation, as well as provide a general feeling of well-being.  Walking, jogging, swimming, and yoga are all great ways to exercise and stretch the muscles of the legs.  Make sure you stretch thoroughly before and after exercising.  Eating a healthy diet with a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and plenty of water is vital to remain healthy during pregnancy.

When you have a leg cramp, stand up and place your feet flat and firmly against the floor.  Some women find relief for leg cramps by wearing support hose during pregnancy.  Stretching your calves and legs before going to bed also may help prevent leg cramping during the night although there is a lack of evidence proving this.  However, there is some evidence that shows adding a daily magnesium supplement may help with leg cramping when there is a previous magnesium imbalance (Hensley, 2009; Young & Jewell, 2011).

You can also increase the amount of magnesium in your diet.  Foods that are high in magnesium include almonds, wheat bran, spinach, cashews, wheat germ, peanut butter, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, and brown rice.  Talk with your CNM about your individual needs if you have leg cramping during pregnancy.

Hensley, J. G.  (2009).  Leg cramps and restless legs syndrome in pregnancy.  Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 54(3), 211-218.

Young, G., & Jewell, D.  (2011).  Interventions for leg cramps in pregnancy.  Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews, 1.  DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000121.

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