Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is characterised by a type of cramp, or soreness in the legs. It can occur in one or both calves or result in a strong urge to move your legs when you’re trying to sleep. Around one in five pregnant women develop RLS during pregnancy, especially in the second or third trimesters, although the symptoms often go away after giving birth. You’re more likely to suffer from RLS if it runs in your family, and iron deficiency is one of the biggest risk factors.
Who gets restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome can affect any age group, but is more likely if you:
- Are pregnant
- Have a parent who suffers from RLS
- Take antidepressant medication
A pregnancy side effect
If you already have RLS, it usually gets worse during pregnancy. It can also crop up for the first time during pregnancy, which could be due to iron or folate deficiency, hormonal changes (such as a rise in oestrogen) or circulatory changes.
Sleep deprivation is common
Because standing up, walking around or any other exercise that uses the legs can help alleviate the cramps and soreness of restless legs syndrome, sleep deprivation is a common side effect. Sufferers might need to get out of bed and walk around a few times every night to get relief, so the effects of RLS are often magnified during pregnancy, when night-time waking might already be happening.
It’s often only temporary
Fortunately, RLS during pregnancy is often temporary for many women. The symptoms typically peak in the last trimester and disappear altogether by the time you give birth or in the weeks afterwards.
Treatment for restless legs syndrome
The cause of RLS is unknown, so it’s only really possible to ease the symptoms rather than cure it altogether. Here’s how:
- If the symptoms are mild, distracting yourself through reading or watching TV can help.
- Exercise has also been found to alleviate the symptoms of RSL, but don’t do strenuous exercise near bedtime.
- Hot or cold packs or a leg massage can help – ask your partner to massage your legs, particularly before going to bed.
- Try not to nap in the evenings and go to bed and get up at the same time each day. A warm bath before bedtime can also help.
- Don’t lie down before bedtime, as it may make RLS symptoms worse – only go to bed when you’re ready to go to sleep.
- Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, especially before bedtime – even a small amount of caffeine has been found to make RLS symptoms worse.
- Some medications, such as cold and allergy tablets, may make RSL symptoms worse. Also ask your doctor or midwife about taking an iron, magnesium, vitamin B12, or folate supplement, which may help (although be aware that your pregnancy supplement may already contain some of these).