More than half of all pregnant women get leg cramps.
Cramps are involuntary muscle spasms caused by a buildup of acids. They usually last 30 to 60 seconds. More than half of all pregnant women get leg cramps. Some women also experience cramps in their buttocks and thighs. These muscle contractions often occur at night, especially during the second and third trimesters.
Many different factors can cause cramps during pregnancy:
The increased weight of the uterus, which puts greater pressure on the abdominal nerves and blood vessels
A mineral imbalance in the blood or a vitamin deficiency (e.g., a lack of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D, or vitamin E)
- Too little or too much exercise
- Poor blood circulation due to increased blood volume and the pressure of the uterus on the blood vessels
- Muscle tension in the toes
Here are a few tips to help you prevent muscle cramps:
Maintain a balanced diet. For example, eat foods rich in calcium (milk, cheese, yogurt) and magnesium (legumes, nuts, spinach, Swiss chard, seeds, dark chocolate).
Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated (i.e., 1.5–2 litres per day). Increase your fluid intake in extreme heat.
Don’t overexert yourself, and rest whenever you have the chance.
Wear shoes with flat heels.
Wear compression stockings to improve circulation.
Place your feet and legs in an elevated position several times a day.
Exercise every day, such as by going for walks.
Do one of the following calf stretches before bed:
– Sit with your legs uncrossed. Lift your right leg, bending your knee at 90 degrees, and pull your toes toward you while flexing your heel forward. Repeat with the left leg.
– Stand facing a wall. Place your hands on the wall and position your right leg behind your left foot. Gently bend your left leg forward, keeping your right leg in extension and your right heel on the floor. Hold this position for about 30 seconds. Repeat with your left leg behind your right foot.
– Do a few repetitions of these exercises.
Apply heat to your calves or take a warm bath before going to bed.
Are mineral supplements effective?
Some health care professionals suggest taking magnesium, calcium, vitamin B, or vitamin C supplements. Studies on their effectiveness, however, are inconclusive. What’s more, prenatal multivitamins contain all the minerals and vitamins you need for a healthy pregnancy.
If you get a leg cramp, there are a few things you can do to reduce your discomfort:
- Extend your leg.
- Stretch your calf muscle by flexing your foot upward to avoid pointing your toes. You can also try standing up, making sure to keep your foot flat, or standing on a cold surface.
- Massage and apply heat to the affected muscle.
Take a hot shower or bath.
- Walk around or elevate your legs to prevent the cramp from returning.
If you get a severe cramp, your calf may be tender the next morning. If the pain persists for several hours, applying heat may help, especially before exercising. The pain should fade with time, much like muscle pain from a hard workout.
When should you see a doctor?
In rare cases, thrombosis can occur if a blood clot forms in the deep veins of the leg. This condition needs to be treated promptly. You should see a health care professional as soon as possible in the following situations:
You experience intense leg pain that is not a cramp
Your leg or foot is swollen
Your skin turns very pale or bluish
You should also see your doctor if your leg pain persists, if you notice any redness or swelling, or if you experience numbness in your leg.
Things to keep in mind
Leg cramps are caused by involuntary muscle spasms.
Eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and exercising can help prevent cramps.
Calf stretches can relieve pain when a cramp occurs.
Scientific review: Lise Ross, M.Sc., nurse, CHUM Birthing Centre
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2020
Montreal Diet Dispensary. “How to prevent calf cramps during pregnancy?” www.dispensaire.ca
Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
HealthLink BC. “Leg Cramps During Pregnancy.” www.healthlinkbc.ca
Lévesque, Sylvie. “Soins préventifs et de santé.” Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
Lowdermilk, Perry, et al. Soins infirmiers – Périnatalité. 2nd ed., Chenelière Éducation. 2019.
Mayo Clinic. “What causes leg cramps during pregnancy, and can they be prevented?” www.mayoclinic.org
Zhou, Kunyan, et al. “Interventions for leg cramps in pregnancy.” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2015.