Pregnancy isn’t always a cakewalk. Sure, we hear how beautiful it is (and it is!), but your first months may have been filled with morning sickness and heartburn. And just when you think you're out of the woods, leg cramps come along.
Leg cramps are a common pregnancy symptom that usually occurs in the second and third trimester. In fact, nearly half of all pregnant women report muscle spasms by the third trimester.
You may experience these cramps mainly at night — just when you'd like to get the sleep you're probably craving — and feel tightness in your calf, foot, or both areas. Some women also experience them after sitting in one position for an extended amount of time.
It may not be possible to entirely prevent leg cramps. But preventative and relief measures like stretching, staying active, and drinking plenty of water may help ease your symptoms and get your mind back on the true joys of pregnancy.
Let's start by talking about what causes these cramps, because knowledge is power when it comes to getting relief.
During pregnancy, circulation slows — this is totally normal and not a reason to worry. It's due in part to overactive hormones. (You probably know by now that hormones are gifts that keep on giving for the whole 40 weeks — and beyond.)
During later trimesters, your body also experiences an increase in blood volume, which also contributes to slow circulation. This can lead to swelling and cramping in your legs.
Tips for improving circulation while pregnant
- Try sleeping on your left side.
- Elevate your legs as often as possible — literally, find the time to put your feet up and relax if you can.
- At night, place a pillow under or between your legs.
- During the day, stand up and walk around every hour or two — especially if you have a job that keeps you at a desk all day.
Quick check: Are you drinking enough water?
During pregnancy, you're ideally drinking 8 to 12 cups of water each day. Watch out for symptoms of dehydration, like dark yellow pee (it should be clear or nearly clear).
Dehydration can cause and worsen leg cramps. If you're experiencing them, try upping your daily water intake.
The pressure from your growing baby can take a toll on your nerves and blood vessels, including the ones that go to your legs. This is why you're more likely to experience leg cramps as your pregnancy progresses, especially in the third trimester.
Gaining a healthy amount of weight and staying active during your pregnancy may help prevent leg cramps. Talk to your healthcare provider if you're concerned.
It’s the norm to feel tired during pregnancy — you're growing a tiny human! — and this is especially true as you gain more weight in the second and third trimester. As your muscles get fatigued from the added pressure, too, it can lead to leg cramps.
Try drinking plenty of water, going for a walk during the day, and stretching before bed to prevent leg cramps due to muscle fatigue.
Calcium or magnesium deficiency
Having too little calcium or magnesium in your diet may contribute to leg cramps.
But if you already take a prenatal vitamin, you likely don’t need to take an additional supplement. A 2015 review of studies of 390 pregnant women found that taking magnesium or calcium supplements made little to no difference when it came to experiencing leg cramps.
If you're concerned you aren’t getting enough of these nutrients, speak to your doctor. You're probably getting labs done occasionally anyway, so it doesn't hurt to have these levels checked.
DVT blood clot
A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) blood clot can occur in the legs, thigh, or pelvis. Pregnant women are
Bottom line: Keep moving. We're not talking marathons here, but the best way to prevent DVT during pregnancy is to avoid hours at a time of inactivity.
If your job requires a lot of sitting, you could set a quiet alarm on your phone to go off every hour to remind you to get up and walk — perhaps to the water cooler to add to your water intake for the day! Two birds, one stone.
Also take extra care to get up during long flights. You may want to check with your doctor before flying while pregnant.
Symptoms of a blood clot are similar to leg cramps, but a DVT blood clot is a medical emergency. Seek medical care right away if you experience symptoms like:
- a lot of pain in your legs when you're standing or moving around
- severe swelling
- warm-to-the-touch skin near the affected area
Stretching before bed
Performing a calf stretch before getting into bed at night may help prevent or ease leg cramps. Follow these steps:
- Stand facing a wall, an arm's length away.
- Place your hands on the wall in front of you.
- Step your right foot back. Keep your heels on the floor the whole time and bend your left knee while keeping your right leg straight. Keep your left knee bent as so you feel the stretch in your right calf muscle.
- Hold for up to 30 seconds. Switch legs, if needed.
Drinking plenty of water during pregnancy is important to prevent dehydration — and dehydration can also lead to those awful leg cramps.
Try to drink 8 to 12 cups of water each day during pregnancy. Easier said than done, sure — but super important for a lot of good reasons.
Try applying heat to your cramping muscle. It may help loosen up the cramp. No need to buy a fancy heating pad: You can also use a microwave-safe cloth bag (or a sock) filled with rice.
Massaging the area
When you get a leg cramp, performing a self-massage may help ease your pain. Use one hand to gently massage your calf or wherever your leg is cramping. Perform this self-massage for 30 seconds to a minute to ease your cramp.
You can also get a prenatal massage, which can be a positively divine experience. Look for an experienced therapist in your area who specializes in working with pregnant women.
It’s a smart idea to stay active throughout your pregnancy, even though you don't want to overdo it.
With your doctor’s OK, pregnancy-safe activities like prenatal yoga, walking, and swimming can benefit you and your baby-to-be.
Staying active can prevent excess weight gain, promote circulation, and yes — help prevent leg cramps. Always stretch and warm up before and after exercising so your muscles don’t cramp up afterward, though.
So, perhaps you don't have the time or energy for a challenging hike or run. That is more than OK — you need to listen to your body and know your limits, especially during pregnancy.
But sitting for long periods of time can lead to leg and muscle cramps. To avoid this, make sure you stand up and walk around every hour or two. Set a timer on your phone or watch if you tend to forget to get up during the day.
Leg cramps are a common pregnancy symptom. (That doesn't make having them any easier, but hopefully it turns down the stress dial a bit.)
If you're concerned about your pain or they're causing too much lost shut-eye, mention it at your next prenatal checkup.
Also call your doctor and let them know if your leg cramps are severe, persistent, or worsening. You may need supplements or medication.
Seek medical help immediately if you experience severe swelling in one or both legs, pain walking, or enlarged veins. These may be symptoms of a blood clot.
The straight answer here is that there is no straight answer. (Great.)
Leg cramps are most common in the second and third trimester of pregnancy, not the first. But changing symptoms are a valid reason to wonder if you're pregnant.
Some women do report aches and pains during the first trimester. This is likely due to your hormonal changes and your expanding uterus.
Leg cramps alone can’t tell you if you're pregnant. If you suspect you're pregnant or miss your period, take an at-home pregnancy test or see your doctor to confirm.
To prevent leg cramps, try the following:
- Drink between 8 and 12 cups of water per day.
- Stay active throughout your pregnancy.
- Stretch out your calf muscles.
- Wear comfortable shoes — leave the heels at home!
- Eat a balanced diet with calcium- and magnesium-rich foods like yogurt, leafy greens, whole grains, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds
Experiencing leg cramps during pregnancy isn’t pleasant. But it’s a common symptom, especially at night. Try our tips — we think they'll help.
And as always, let your doctor know if you have any related worries. Never feel bad or self-conscious about phoning or emailing your clinic — helping you through a healthy pregnancy is the number one concern of OB doctors and nurses.