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Restless Leg Syndrome and Pregnancy

Katlyn Joy | 9, July 2013


Pregnancy is associated with a wide range of symptoms. Some you expected like cravings, morning sickness and swollen ankles, and some like house-rattling belches, itchy belly and growing feet, you may not have expected.

Restless legs syndrome or RLS is not often discussed when talking about some of the nuisances of pregnancy. However, 5 to 10 percent of adults have the disorder and pregnancy is considered a significant risk factor.

What Is RLS?

RLS is a movement disorder and while annoying and sometimes even painful in cases, it is not a destructive type disease. Management of symptoms is the treatment goal as you don't cure it.

It appears to run in families, and may have its start in younger children with symptoms of painful aches or growing pains in their legs at night. It can happen at any time of day with adults, but is typically at night and can cause some real insomnia in sufferers. It may also affect the partner's sleep with the movements, including ones that occur during the RLS patient's sleep which may indicate a related disorder, PLMD or Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Some people feel the sensations in the feet or even in their arms.

What RLS Feels Like

Those with the disorder describe sensations such as aching, bubbling, tingling, crawling, pulling, pins and needles, wormy, or painful. Muscle jerks may accompany the sensations. The discomfort is relieved by movement, and those with RLS will stand up, walk or move the legs.

The Prognosis of RLS

The symptoms may occur most or every night, or at other times of day, but especially stressful times may trigger more episodes. An episode may last an hour or longer.

RLS is successfully treated with a range of medications, but very few of these are considered safe choices for pregnant women. Most women will need to do some self-care and home remedies or lifestyle options to control symptoms, or just roll with it and expect it to be a temporary pain.

A study published in the December 7, 2010 issue of Neurology looked at 74 pregnant women who experienced RLS during pregnancy and 133 who didn't have the movement disorder. After 6 and a half years, the women were interviewed about further pregnancies, RLS symptoms, medications used and the occurrences of other diseases or conditions.

According to the study, women who had RLS in pregnancy were four times as likely to develop the condition again. Those who experience RLS during pregnancy are also three times as likely to develop a chronic form of the syndrome.

The study's author, Mauro Manconi, MD, PhD, said, "Women who experience RLS should still be reassured that symptoms will probably disappear after delivery but may reappear later on."

How You Can Deal With RLS without Medication During Pregnancy

One of the biggest methods of dealing with it is medication, and in certain severe cases doctors may look at pain relievers considered safe, especially in the third trimester when symptoms may be at their worst, and if sleep is significantly disturbed.

Some women seem to be affected due to low levels of iron, or anemia. Should this be the culprit, taking iron supplements may be a big help in resolving symptoms.

Other methods of dealing with the symptoms include stretching and flexing. This may not work with pregnant women however.

Here are some options you can try to see if they work for you:

- Watch your diet. Keeping a food diary and seeing how your symptoms relate may help you identify food triggers for RLS symptoms.

- Use a cold pack or warm compress or alternate. This may disrupt some of the discomfort.

- Cut back on caffeine, or eliminate it altogether as you know it isn't doing you or baby any favors.

- Get regular exercise, but don't do it too late in the day or you may exacerbate symptoms in the evening.

- Take a nice warm soak in the tub. Just be careful not to get overheated and dizzy.

- Get a massage, either from a professional or a sweet spouse.

- Acupuncture may be helpful in some patients and is safe in pregnancy,

- Learning relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing or yoga may also help lower stress and therefore lessen the likelihood of RLS episodes.

Article Sources: WebMD, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, National Institutes of Heath, and American Academy of Neurology

Katlyn Joy is a mother to 7 children, and a freelance writer. She earned her Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and was previously an adviser to new mothers on breastfeeding through a maternity home program. She currently resides in Colorado with her family.

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