Pregnancy is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Women can experience various ailments during pregnancy, like hormonal acne, nausea, heartburn, sleeplessness, and exhaustion. Some conditions, like restless leg syndrome (RLS), can come on during pregnancy and be more challenging to manage. RLS can make sleeping nearly impossible, which can be unbearable when women are exhausted.
Studies have found that between 10% and 34% of pregnant women suffer from RLS, which is the urge to keep moving even when they want to be still.1 It can be maddening when a woman tries to get her much-needed rest. We reached out to a physician to help shed some light on the condition and learn what women can do to get relief.
What is Restless Leg Syndrome?
Rest leg syndrome causes unpleasant sensations in the legs with an urge to move them. The condition is also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, and symptoms often occur in the late afternoon or evening. The most severe sensations happen at night when someone is resting or lying in bed.3
Dr. Eric Strand, Washington University OBGYN at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said the most reliable symptom of restless leg syndrome is the urge to move while at rest. “Patients often, but not always, also describe an unpleasant or uncomfortable sensation in the legs—tingling, aching, antsy, or itching. The symptoms should NOT be from another cause (such as leg edema or swelling, which can cause similar symptoms and is common in pregnancy). The symptoms are often worse in the evening or nighttime for reasons that aren’t clear,” he said.
RLS may lead to other issues during pregnancy. For example, it can make for a rough morning if you are up all night with aches and pains in your legs. Studies found that women suffering from RLS had difficulty keeping up with their day-to-day activities due to being overly tired.3
According to the National Library of Medicine, the data on the effect of RLS on pregnancy indicate that pregnant women with RLS had more complications related to pregnancy and labor, such as threatened abortion, premature labor, difficult delivery, and intrauterine growth restriction.1
What Causes RLS in Pregnancy?
Unfortunately, there is no known cause for RLS, which Dr. Strand said was frustrating. He said it is more common in pregnant women than any other demographic, possibly due to several factors. Dr. Strand explained that it could be due to low levels of iron and folate during pregnancy. Another potential cause is high estrogen in pregnancy and changes in a woman’s anatomy, specifically the stretching of the body.
The National Library of Medicine reports that genetic factors and smoking could trigger RLS during pregnancy.1 Family history of RLS and personal history may also play a role, and studies find that obesity, mainly abdominal obesity, can cause RLS. Studies have also connected weight gain during pregnancy to RLS. How much is difficult to pinpoint, as weight gain during pregnancy is common.1
Additionally, the National Library of Medicine reports that women who suffer from RLS during pregnancy have an increased incidence of leg cramps and are often extremely tired during the day. These factors also were associated with insomnia in these women.1
When Does RLS Typically Occur During Pregnancy?
Dr. Strand said RLS is most common in late pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. He said it would resolve itself in most women after birth, but that isn’t always the case for women who experienced restless leg syndrome symptoms before pregnancy.
Are There Any Treatments for RLS?
Dr. Strand explained there are few evidence-based recommendations because RLS hasn’t been thoroughly studied. He explained that because RLS disappears after pregnancy, many women can deal with the symptoms because they know they’re temporary.
Dr. Strand suggested regular exercise for pregnant women is essential, as is staying away from things that could exacerbate the situation. He said women should refrain from smoking, using nicotine, caffeine, sedating antihistamines, and some medicines commonly used for nausea. Dr. Strand explained all of these could lead to RLS.
RLS contributes significantly to poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, and poor daytime function in pregnancy.2
What is the Best Way to Deal with RLS?
When managing RLS, a positive attitude is critical, and understanding that there is hope in the situation. Women who suffer from the condition during pregnancy find relief shortly after birth, which is something to look forward to.
In the meantime, take care of yourself. Go for a walk, have a tall glass of lemonade, and rest while you can. Maybe try to make the best out of a not-so-pleasant situation. Imagine that your legs are just as excited to meet your baby as you are, and they can’t sit still.