It began early on in her pregnancy—whenever Amy Patterson plopped down on the couch to unwind after a long day at work, her legs still wanted to move. Amy was so tired, and all she wanted to do was rest, but her legs wouldn’t let her.
“It was like they’d had a lot of coffee and the rest of my body hadn’t,” she says. “I’d stretch them, rub them, run around to get some energy out, but nothing stopped it. Sometimes it was so bad, I’d just go to bed early because it felt better when I was lying down with my pregnancy pillow.”
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition that causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs while sleeping or when you’re at rest—say when you're sitting down to enjoy some Netflix. It can happen to anyone, but it’s especially common during pregnancy, says Batya Grundland, the maternity care lead for the Family Health Team at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “It affects up to 30 percent of pregnant women and we don’t really know why,” she says. It could have something to do with thyroid function or it could be hormone-related. But don’t worry: having RLS during pregnancy is generally not a cause for concern. RLS might also be hereditary—Patterson knew right away what it was because her mother also suffers from the condition.
RLS typically begins in the second trimester, but it can start at any point in your pregnancy, says Carly Beaulieu, a registered midwife and owner of Lucina Midwives in Edmonton. And it can affect each woman differently. “You can get cramps, aches, a twitchy feeling, or just feel like you need to stretch or move your legs,” she says. “It usually happens when you’re lying down at night.”
Patterson says the syndrome kicked in as soon as she wanted to relax. “It’s pretty easy to identify because your legs feel like they want to run a marathon,” she says. “It was very disruptive—sometimes it even started on the car ride home from work.”
If you suspect you have RLS, it’s important to mention it to your doctor. Although there is no definitive diagnostic test for the syndrome itself, there are other things that should be ruled out that could be causing it, Grundland says. “We might look for an iron deficiency (an underlying condition that could cause RLS) or a thyroid abnormality,” she says. If those things are found to be an issue, your OB, midwife or family doctor would then advise you about how to treat those conditions.
Since RLS is more annoying than dangerous, Grundland has never prescribed any medication for it. “It’s usually just a mild discomfort,” she says. “And while there are medications out there, none have been systematically tested in pregnancy.” Still, she adds, the condition can be disruptive and interfere with your quality of sleep, which means moms-to-be need to find some relief.
If you’re experiencing RLS, here are some treatments to try:
– “Exercise really does help, whether it’s simple stretches, yoga, walking or swimming,” Beaulieu says.
–Try taking magnesium to help relax your muscles, suggests Beaulieu. You can take it in supplement form, but talk to your OB or midwife first and get their recommendation about dosage.
–If you don’t want to take magnesium supplements, you can find it in natural sources such as green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, and legumes including chickpeas and black beans.
–Soak in a bath sprinkled with Epsom salts before bed. “Epsom salts contain magnesium sulphate, which will relax you, and you can add some soothing lavender or eucalyptus as well,” explains Beaulieu.
–Apply warm or cool packs to help relieve the twitchy sensation in your legs, says Beaulieu.
–Beaulieu also recommends massage therapy.
Patterson says the only thing that helped her (to her husband’s dismay) was foot massages.
“He would massage my feet for a while after work and it would go away during the massage,” she says. “It didn’t always make it go away entirely, but for the duration of the massage, my legs were OK.” If she got really uncomfortable, she would have a hot bath, then wrap her legs around her pregnancy pillow. (Beaulieu recommends investing in a good-quality pillow and mattress—anything that will improve your odds of getting a better night’s sleep.)
Thankfully, RLS doesn’t pose any risk to the baby, but it can certainly be irritating for the mother, Grundland says. “It’s really just a common, annoying symptom of pregnancy, as so many symptoms of pregnancy are.”
Unfortunately, there’s no scientifically proven way to prevent RLS, Grundland says. “The good news is that it usually resolves when you deliver your baby.” Although, she adds, if you experienced RLS during your pregnancy, there’s a slight chance it may resurface later in life.
The only thing you can do if you discover you have RLS is to make yourself as comfortable as possible.
“Treat yourself. Get the foot rubs, buy the pregnancy pillow, find the world’s most comfortable pyjamas—do what you can to make it more bearable,” Patterson recommends. “And know that it’s not forever.”
Patterson’s daughter is now 17 weeks, and happily it’s the baby, not her restless legs, who’s keeping her up at night.