Leg cramps during pregnancy

Just when you thought you’d had every pregnancy symptom out there, along comes another one. Here’s how to deal with night time leg cramps…

Leg cramps are the feeling of sudden, sharp pain, usually in the calf muscles or feet that happen when a muscle suddenly shortens and becomes tight (spasms). They can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes and it can even be difficult to move when they hit. Even when the leg cramp has stopped, you might feel tenderness in the muscle for up to 24 hours.

Here's why you might be getting leg cramps and what you can do about them...

Why am I getting leg cramps - is it a pregnancy symptom?

Well, they're common - about 30% to 50% of pregnant women get leg cramps (Zhou et al, 2015). Like a lot of pregnancy symptoms, leg cramps tend to appear in that pesky third trimester (Zhou et al, 2015).

It’s not clear why women get leg cramps in pregnancy. But it could be the pregnancy affecting your metabolism, too little or too much exercise, electrolyte imbalances or vitamin deficiencies (Zhou et al, 2015).

The good news is that the cramps should disappear as soon as your baby arrives (NICE, 2012; NHS Choices, 2015).

How to ease leg cramps during pregnancy

Can exercises help ease leg cramps?

Regular, gentle exercises could mean cramps crop up less often and can help ease symptoms when they happen too. Here’s how to do them:

  • Bend and stretch the foot vigorously up and down 30 times.
  • Rotate the foot eight times one way and eight times the other way and repeat with other foot.
  • Pull the toes hard up towards the ankle or rub the muscle hard. 
  • Try doing these exercises three times a day.

(NICE, 2012; NHS Choices, 2015)

When you do get a cramp, stretch and massage the muscle straight away (NICE, 2012).

What can I do if I get leg cramps while sleeping?

Annoyingly, leg cramps usually happen at night. Leg cramps can really get in the way of a good night’s sleep (Allen and Kirby 2012; NHS Choices 2015). This is hard when you’re feeling so exhausted already.

Here are a few ideas that might help with night time leg cramps:

  • If you get leg cramp at night, you could try getting out of bed to walk around on your heels for a little while before heading back to (a hopefully undisturbed) sleep.
  • Keep bedding loose so that your feet and legs have space to move around.
  • Raise your feet by propping them up on a pillow, and try not to have your toes pointing down.
  • Some people also find that soaking in a warm bath before bed helps their muscles relax.

(NICE, 2012)

For more information about getting a good night's, see our article How to sleep better in pregnancy: 10 tips.

Are there any leg cramp remedies I can use in pregnancy?

As for supplements, nobody yet knows whether magnesium, calcium, vitamin B or vitamin C provide effective or safe treatments for pregnant women (Young 2014; Zhou et al 2015).  So make sure you ask your midwife or pharmacist before taking any supplements.

Are leg cramps bad during pregnancy?

Very occasionally, leg cramps can be a sign of something more sinister.  In one or two in 1,000 pregnancies, a blood clot can develop and lodge in the leg vein and that will need treatment straight away.

If you are getting cramps very regularly or can see some swelling or tenderness in your leg, contact your GP.

You should ask for an urgent appointment if leg cramps last for longer than 10 minutes. It’s also urgent if there's a chance you might have got a tetanus infection from a recent injury.

This page was last reviewed in February 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

NHS Choices. (2015)   Cramp in pregnancy. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/common-pregnancy-problems.aspx#Cramp  [Accessed 1st April 2017]

Allen RE, Kirby KA. (2012) Nocturnal leg cramps. American Family Physician 86(4):350-355. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22963024  [Accessed 1st April 2017]

NICE. (2012) Leg cramps. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence/Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Available from: https://cks.nice.org.uk/leg-cramps#!topicsummary  [Accessed 1st April 2017]

Zhou K, West HM, Zhang J, Xu L, Li W. (2015) Interventions for leg cramps in pregnancy (review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (8):CD010655. Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD010655.pub2…; [Accessed 1st April 2017]

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