Pregnancy comes along with so many changes in your body, and sometimes even brand new sensations. Some, like feeling your baby move, are welcome and exciting. But if you’ve ever experienced the effects of restless legs syndrome (RLS), you would certainly describe it as anything but welcome or exciting. It can be both baffling and maddening. Let’s take a look at what it is, why it happens, and what you can do to help alleviate the strange feelings that come with restless legs syndrome in pregnancy.
What Does Restless Legs Syndrome Feel Like?
First, let’s start with what it’s like to have restless legs syndrome, whether it’s during pregnancy or not. If you’ve never felt it, it may be hard to understand what a sufferer is describing. And if you do experience it, you may find it hard to come up with words to make others understand what it feels like.
People describe the feeling that RLS causes in their legs in various ways: restless, twitchy, tingling, itchy, creeping, crawling, pulling, throbbing, electric. What everyone seems to agree on is that they have an irresistible urge to move their legs. Whether their legs feel physically uncomfortable, or they experience it as just a strong mental urge, they can’t feel comfortable unless they’re moving their legs. This urge occurs most often in the evening while relaxing or trying to sleep (1). Sufferers of RLS may toss and turn, jiggle their legs, change positions frequently, or feel the need to get up and walk—motion seems to be the only thing that makes the urge go away.
What Causes RLS?
Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes restless legs syndrome (also called RLS, Willis-Ekbom Disease, or WED.) According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), “RLS is classified as a sleep disorder since the symptoms are triggered by resting and attempting to sleep, and as a movement disorder, since people are forced to move their legs in order to relieve symptoms. It is, however, best characterized as a neurological sensory disorder with symptoms that are produced from within the brain itself” (2).
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome in Pregnancy?
There are some conditions and disorders that increase the chances of having RLS, and pregnancy is one of them. Between twenty and twenty-five percent of pregnant women in their third trimester have restless legs syndrome (3). Some women who suffer from RLS have low iron levels or low folate, though that isn’t always the cause; another culprit may be the hormones associated with pregnancy (4). Other theories are that contributors may include pregnancy weight gain and increased circulation (5). And studies also show that it runs in families, so you’re more likely to experience it if a close relative has (1).
What Does Restless Legs Syndrome Mean For My Pregnancy and Baby?
There is no need to worry about RLS harming your baby or causing problems for your pregnancy. Your doctor or midwife will likely want to check your iron and folate levels. (You can always ask for this testing if they don’t suggest it.) If either of those are found to be low, they may suggest that you take a supplement. If your restless legs aren’t caused by a deficiency, they’re simply an irritation to you and not a danger to your baby.
That’s not to say that there are no effects from having to deal with restless legs syndrome. Your general mood and emotional state may be affected during the times that your body feels uncomfortable and agitated. RLS may make it hard to sleep, which can leave you even more exhausted than pregnancy typically does. A lack of sleep at night may make your daytime self less efficient, feel like you’re in a fog, or can lead to general irritability.
There is no really reliable way to treat restless leg syndrome, especially during pregnancy. There are medications that help for some people, but they’re not meds that are usually used in pregnancy, both for safety reasons and because RLS usually resolves on its own after you deliver your baby. If you are found to be deficient in either folic acid or iron, your doctor can prescribe supplements for you, and that may help. However, you should always check with your provider before starting any medication or supplement.
Things You Can Try
There are some non-medicinal tips you may find helpful to get through pregnancy, after which your restless legs syndrome will likely go away. Getting up and walking around is the only sure way to make your legs feel better. You can slowly walk the hall. Do some light housework. Walk on a treadmill, perhaps while listening to an audiobook or something else you find relaxing.
However, you won’t always want to get up. Sometimes you just want to rest. Here are some things that may help calm the restless feeling:
- Massage your legs or ask your partner to do so.
- Do some leg stretches.
- Apply cold or warm compresses to your legs for 15 minutes.
- Take a warm bath. Remember, you don’t want to raise your body temperature too much during pregnancy, so avoid long, hot baths or showers.
- Get regular exercise, but don’t do anything intense within a few hours of bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. (Studies are on the fence about caffeine, but hopefully you’re avoiding the others already.)
- Maintain a good sleep routine. This includes going to bed and getting up around the same time each day, avoiding screens for an hour before bed, etc. (1, 2)
And if your schedule allows, sleep in later in the morning or try to grab a daytime nap. Since RLS tends to be worst at night, you can try to get some sleep at other times if possible.
Advice From A Kopa Mom
One member of the Kopa Birth crew who experienced restless legs syndrome found that for her personally, the best relief was from sitting in a recliner that had vibration. It didn’t always work but it seemed that at least sometimes, the stimulation of the vibration was enough to offset the RLS feelings. While not everyone has a chair like this, you can purchase massage pads that go in any chair, starting at around $30 and up. The FDA has cleared a medical device that’s a pad that delivers vibration to the back of the legs (2), but restless legs syndrome that occurs in pregnancy typically goes away after delivery, so you won’t likely have a need to pursue special medical equipment.
Our other piece of friend-tested advice is to provide compression in some way. Wrap your legs snugly with a towel or blanket. Use a weighted blanket on your legs. There is a medical device that provides compression to legs, and has shown to be quite effective when worn for an hour before bed (6). But again, you’re looking at symptoms that are expected to resolve soon, so there likely won’t be a need to pursue something so specialized.
Light at The End of the Tunnel
As we’ve mentioned several times, restless legs syndrome that starts during pregnancy is expected to resolve after your baby is born. We recognize that it’s incredibly frustrating to be unable to rest when you’re tired, and in the moment, it may be hard to think about more than the present moment. But if you’re able, take a breath and remind yourself that there is an end to the discomfort, and it—along with your little one—will be here soon.
Kopa Birth’s online childbirth classes allow you to prepare for a natural childbirth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class to learn more about preparing for a natural hospital birth.
- Restless legs syndrome (rls): Causes, symptoms, diagnosis. (n.d.). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9497-restless-legs-syndrome
- Restless legs syndrome fact sheet. (n.d.). https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Restless-Legs-Syndrome-Fact-Sheet
- Darvishi, N., Daneshkhah, A., Khaledi-Paveh, B., Vaisi-Raygani, A., Mohammadi, M., Salari, N., Darvishi, F., Abdi, A., & Jalali, R. (2020). The prevalence of Restless Legs Syndrome/Willis-ekbom disease (RLS/WED) in the third trimester of pregnancy: a systematic review. BMC neurology, 20(1), 132. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12883-020-01709-0
- Srivanitchapoom, P., Pandey, S., & Hallett, M. (2014). Restless legs syndrome and pregnancy: a review. Parkinsonism & related disorders, 20(7), 716–722. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.parkreldis.2014.03.027
- Barratt, J., Cross, C., Steel, S., & Biswas, C. (2016). The pregnancy encyclopedia: All your questions answered. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
- Lettieri, C. J., & Eliasson, A. H. (2009). Pneumatic compression devices are an effective therapy for restless legs syndrome: a prospective, randomized, double-blinded, sham-controlled trial. Chest, 135(1), 74–80. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.08-1665