You’re just about to drop off to sleep when it strikes — that tingling, jittery sensation in your legs that means you just can’t keep them still. This is restless leg syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, and it’s a common complaint in pregnancy.
Because it’s usually worse when you’re sitting or lying down towards the end of the day, it can rob you of precious rest and sleep. Sufferers typically experience an itching or burning feeling in their legs, almost as if something is crawling up them.
Although the symptoms are in your legs, the condition is thought to originate in your brain. People may imagine that their unborn baby is pressing on a nerve, or is affecting their circulation, but there’s no evidence that this is the case.
The problem can affect anyone, at any age, although pregnancy seems to be a particular trigger. Theories as to why this is so include a lack of iron or folic acid, or a rise in oestrogen levels, which possibly affects the sensitivity of some brain cells to dopamine.
It can occur at any stage of pregnancy, often persisting until the baby is delivered. As irritating as the symptoms may be, they’re harmless and won’t affect your baby. They should disappear soon after the birth. We show you seven tips to ease that twitching in your legs:
Up your iron intake
Ask your gynae to check your levels of iron and ferritin (a protein that stores iron) ― done with a simple blood test. Low levels are not thought to be a direct cause of the problem, but topping up any shortfall will improve your overall health and could relieve symptoms. Eating iron-rich foods throughout pregnancy and beyond makes good sense, and may reduce your chances of developing RLS again if you have another baby.
Cut out caffeine
You may already have reduced your caffeine intake, but it’s worth adopting a zero-tolerance approach to help you fall into deep sleep more easily. Most decaf coffee contains some caffeine, as does most tea, even green teas. And be aware that you’ll find caffeine lurking in some fizzy drinks and chocolate.
Avoid sitting up in bed reading or surfing the Net as this inactivity can bring on RLS symptoms. It’s thought that this “normal” rest inadvertently triggers a response in the brain, which usually kicks in with prolonged immobility to protect the body from problems such as pressure sores. Aim to be up and moving until you’re ready to get into bed for sleep.
Apply heat or cold
Bathing or taking a lengthy shower can help calm your legs. Experiment with water temperatures to see what offers most relief. The likelihood is that the temperature change can switch off some of the abnormal response to rest. If warmth doesn’t help, try cooling your legs with a wrung-out-but-still-damp tea towel that’s been in the freezer for two minutes.
Exercise your leg muscles
Wriggling or kicking your legs will bring some immediate relief. Or try this simple exercise: Contract all the muscles surrounding the restless area for 10 seconds, then relax them for 20 seconds. Repeat five times while breathing slowly.
Distract your brain
Use an app like the Naturespace app (free, on iTunes or Google Play) features sounds ranging from oceans to rainforests, and will help soothe you to sleep.
Soothe with massage
A gentle rub can offer temporary relief from symptoms. Ask your husband to massage your legs at bedtime, as you drift off, to quell the tingling long enough for you to fall asleep.