Unpacking Restless Leg Syndrome While Pregnant

Last Updated: June 25, 2024
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

By Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

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I’m sure you are familiar with morning sickness, urinary frequency, tender breasts, and sheer exhaustion as symptoms of pregnancy. But, are you aware that some women also suffer from restless leg syndrome (RLS) during pregnancy too? While not nearly as common as some of the others, restless leg syndrome is definitely something that can strike during pregnancy. 

Come along with me – I’ll spend the remainder of this article unpacking restless leg syndrome while pregnant, including what it is, why it happens, and potential treatment options!

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What is restless leg syndrome? What does it feel like?

Restless leg syndrome is something that typically impacts adult women more than any other population. It’s not well understood why this population is at a slightly increased risk for RLS but guess who falls into this category? You guessed it, pregnant women!

According to Mayo Clinic, restless leg syndrome “is a condition that causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, usually because of an uncomfortable sensation. It typically happens in the evening or nighttime hours when you’re sitting or lying down. Moving eases the unpleasant feeling temporarily.”

In addition to an intense urge to move your legs, someone with RLS might also experience other sensations in their lower limbs such as:

  • Itching
  • Pins and needles 
  • Aching
  • Throbbing 

These symptoms are typically more common in the evening and overnight. It’s not well understood why this is the case, but many believe it’s related to a decrease in dopamine levels that generally occurs towards the end of the day.

Why does restless leg syndrome happen while pregnant?

So, what exactly causes restless leg syndrome in pregnancy? I know you might find this surprising (only kidding) but the exact cause of RLS in pregnancy is not well understood. 

Experts believe it is likely a combination of a few things:

  • Genetics
  • Hormones (surprise, surprise)
  • Environmental factors
  • Diet
  • Sleep (or lack thereof)
  • Stress, anxiety, and/or depression 

Estrogen levels peak in the third trimester of pregnancy. Coincidentally (or maybe not!), restless leg syndrome is also more common in the third trimester. In addition, a lack of things such as iron and folic acid during pregnancy might increase your risk of experiencing RLS. 

Again, it’s very likely that there isn’t one exact thing that causes RLS in pregnancy. Restless leg syndrome in pregnancy is most likely the result of several different factors and should resolve after you give birth.

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How to get rid of restless leg syndrome during pregnancy

The treatment for restless leg syndrome while pregnant depends on the cause. If the cause of restless leg syndrome is known, which isn’t always the case, the treatment plan should be directed towards the specific cause. Not to worry though, if the cause is unknown, there are still things that can be attempted to help ease and resolve symptoms.

Vitamin & mineral supplements

If RLS is related to a deficiency in folic acid or iron then incorporating more of these particular vitamins and minerals into your diet can help. You can do this simply by taking a supplement or with dietary changes. Some examples of iron-rich foods include red meat, spinach, collard greens, eggs, salmon, and dried beans. 

If you are looking for sources of foods high in folic acid you will want to focus on things such as dark leafy greens, beans, eggs, fresh fruit, and whole grains.

Lifestyle modifications

Now hear me out…as someone that has gone through pregnancy twice, I know there is only so much you can do to help with insomnia and stress. There’s really no way around it. Pregnancy, while a very exciting time, can also be pretty stressful and overwhelming too. 

Getting good quality sleep in pregnancy, especially in the third trimester, can be hard. You are uncomfortable, everything hurts, you have to pee every time you move, all the things!

Here are a few tips to try and get a better nights sleep:

  • Incorporate meditation into your daily routine
  • Upgrade your head pillow
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day
  • Buy a pregnancy pillow
  • Create a bedtime routine and stick to it
  • Nap during the day, if you’re able!

Other ways to try and keep stress low during pregnancy include consistently exercising, eating healthy foods, meditation, avoiding or limiting caffeine intake, abstaining from any kind of recreational drugs or alcohol, prenatal massage, and prenatal yoga. 

Related Reading: 12 Helpful Ways to Relax During Pregnancy

Medications

Your provider might discuss the possibility of medications with you if your RLS is severe and/or symptoms are severe. Medications typically aren’t recommended unless other treatment options have proven unsuccessful. A treatment plan involving medication is something you and your provider would work together to devise.

Other remedies

There are a few other noteworthy things you can do to help ease symptoms associated with restless leg syndrome, including:

  • Stretching
  • Warm bath 
  • Heating pad or hot compress on your legs
  • Leg massage

Other pregnancy discomfort resources

Whether you have experienced pregnancy yourself or just heard from others, it comes as no surprise that pregnancy, while filled with lots of pleasantries, can also be accompanied by some aches and pains. 

If you are pregnant, there is a good chance you will experience some of the more common pregnancy discomforts at some point. And for that reason, I am going to provide some information and resources below about these discomforts and ways to help you cope.

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Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

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