Calf cramps in pregnancy

I have been experiencing calf cramps now that I am pregnant. What can I do to help this?

During pregnancy many women notice that they experience calf cramps, especially at night time when sleeping (or trying to sleep). There are varied causes of calf cramps during pregnancy, but no noted single cure for them.

One of the reasons your calf muscles may cramp is because you have an extra 40-50% of blood volume in your system which needs to be pumped around your body. When you are walking and moving during the day, your calf muscles act like a pump and help the blood to flow against gravity, back up towards your heart. When you are lying down at night, it is not as easy for your heart to do all the work, pumping the extra blood down to your feet and then back up again. Fluid can 'pool', that is the circulation slows down, and swelling can occur in the veins in the legs. This fluid retention can contribute to cramps occurring and also leg aches.

The other reason that leg swelling or slowing of the circulation can occur while sitting or lying is your growing uterus as your baby grows. This makes it harder for your blood to move through the veins back towards the heart. Simply being aware of this can help you to understand why leg swelling or calf cramps can occur.

After sport or exercise, calf stretches would often be considered important, amongst other stretches. During a busy day of being on your feet, the calf muscles are working, but stretching after 'a days work' is not often thought of. Your calf muscles are working harder during pregnancy with the weight of your growing baby to move you around. Why not try and stretch them at the end of the day or before you go to bed?

Calf muscle stretches ~ There are two different calf muscles to stretch:

o Gastrocnemius ~ which is a muscle that goes from behind your knee down to the Achilles tendon behind your ankle. To stretch this muscle you should place one foot in front of the other at a comfortable distance apart. Keep the heel of your back leg on the floor and your knee straight, (front leg, knee bent), while you lunge forwards until you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your calf.

STU_0081-(1).jpgo Soleus ~ this muscle goes from just below the back of your knee down to the Achilles tendon behind your ankle. To stretch this muscle, stay in the position described above, and keeping the heel of the back leg on the floor, bend the back knee until you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your calf. You may feel this stretch lower down in your calf muscle. This stretch can also be done with both legs at the same time. Stand in front of a wall, place your hands on it for support with your feet level but comfortable apart. Bend both knees until you feel a gentle stretch in your calf muscle.

Hold each stretch between 10 - 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side. You may want to do this more than once on each side. When you are pregnant you should not overstretch due to the relaxin hormone in your body which softens ligaments. You should feel the stretch comfortably with no pain, but do not push into a strong stretch.


Other helpful exercises and tips

Ankle circles and calf pump exercises ~ Pooling of the blood in your calf muscles can also occur if you have been sitting for long periods during the day or in the evening. Again your circulation slows, so to help the muscles pump the blood back you can do ankle circles or simply move your feet up and down while you are sitting (calf pumps). This can also occur if you are standing for any length of time. Again calf pumps may assist to reduce leg aches in this situation or cramps from occurring.

Cool down slowly and stretch after exercise ~ If you exercise during the day it is important to do a longer cool down while you are pregnant. Your heart has been pumping the blood around faster so if you stop suddenly it can cause pooling of blood in the veins in your legs. Slow down for the last 5 - 7 minutes of your exercise program, and then finish with some calf stretches, especially if you have experienced leg cramps.

Use a towel to help you stretch if you get cramps at night ~ If you do wake up with leg cramps, you can try to relieve it by gently pulling your toes up towards you. This will stretch the back of your leg, and the muscles should relax. If you are unable to do this, sometimes using a towel under your foot and pulling gently can help you to do the stretch more easily. It also stops you from needing to wake up your partner to help you get rid of the cramp.

Try not to cross your legs and have your legs supported properly ~ Crossing your legs for long periods of time is not recommended as this also slows down your circulation. If you are resting during the day or evening try to have your legs elevated, but do not place your feet on a chair or stool and leave the backs of your knees unsupported. Lying on a lounge with your legs up is a better option.

Overheating at night ~ Being too hot during the night may also lead to leg cramps. The extra heat can cause the veins to open up slightly, and this in turn can cause pooling of the blood in your calf muscles. Wearing too many clothes to bed including socks, and the use of doonas have been associated with becoming overheated during the night.

Seek further advice ~ There are other suggested reasons for calf cramps occurring. These include calcium deficiency or lack of potassium in the diet. If the above suggestions do not reduce your cramps, please seek further advice from your Midwife, or Medical Practitioner. 

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