Having aching legs during pregnancy is the icing on the cake of all of your physical ailments. But contrary to cake, heavy or aching legs are not something to be desired. While things like morning sickness and fatigue can be expected, when leg pain hits, it might catch you off guard.
To help make your leg troubles a little more bearable, we’ll give you some basic information and help you identify the signs, causes, and treatments for your aching and heavy legs.
Blood Circulation And Heavy Or Aching Legs During Pregnancy
Pregnancy is a period during which the risk of circulatory disruptions becomes particularly high. These disruptions are the consequence of the related increase in body weight and hormonal changes, as seen below:
- As early as the first trimester, the increase in hormones creates circumstances in which the blood in the veins can easily stagnate, weakening vein walls and the firmness of blood vessels. Estrogen levels can lead to inflammation (edema), and progesterone modifies the vein walls and vessel dilation.
- Throughout pregnancy, the increased volume of the uterus leads to increased pressure on the main vein responsible for returning blood to the heart.
- Finally, an increase in blood weight and volume (of 20% to 30%) contributes to increased pressure on the leg veins, which is doubled or tripled. The valves are separated further from each other by distension of the veins and no longer play their role of impeding blood return.
Blood circulation in the leg veins can be considerably disrupted. The symptoms vary significantly from woman to woman and pregnancy to pregnancy, ranging from simple discomfort to disabling pain.
After delivery, these impairments most often go away on their own within a few weeks.
The Role Of Veins And Vascular Insufficiency
In their normal state, arteries supply the body’s tissues and organs with essential substances for their healthy functioning, such as oxygen. Veins, on the other hand, return blood to the heart.
Blood pressure and the firmness of vein walls allow blood to flow from the lower to the upper portion of the legs. This blood flow through the veins and back up to the heart is called venous return.
Valves, acting as small flaps, are positioned every 2 to 5 centimeters (0.8 to 2 inches) in the veins. These valves ensure that blood always flows in the same direction without ever “falling” back down the other way.
The calf muscles and compression of the instep also play a role in blood flow, particularly when walking.
Several factors can increase the risk of vascular insufficiency during pregnancy:
- Heredity: If your mom has had circulatory issues, you run a higher risk of experiencing them yourself.
- Working in a standing position and shuffling. Prolonged sitting can also disrupt venous return.
- A sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical exercise.
- Excess body weight prior to pregnancy, or significant weight gain during pregnancy.
- Previous pregnancies: The risk of venous insufficiency increases with the number of previous pregnancies carried to term — 23 percent for the first pregnancy and 31 percent for the fourth.
To avoid circulatory impairments during pregnancy, prevention is essential. If you need to, try to lose weight before getting pregnant and then limit your weight gain during pregnancy.
Here are some other healthy habits to help you avoid vascular insufficiency:
- Take walks or do light exercise, which boosts blood flow
- Wear shoes with a small heel that is neither too high nor too flat (3 to 4 cm or 1 to 1.5 inches)
- Avoid tight-fitting clothes and constricting socks
- If you suffer from any plantar arch problems, wear corrective insoles
- In certain cases, wearing compression stockings and taking venotonics may be recommended during pregnancy, starting in the second month
If you experience the sensation of heavy legs despite these measures, try some of these tips to help ease the discomfort:
- Raise your feet from the foot of your bed
- At the end of each shower, spray cold water over your legs in an upward motion from the ankles to the thighs
- Avoid sources of heat (prolonged exposure to the sun, high-temperature baths, underfloor heating, etc.)
- Massage your legs every day, from the ankles to the knees, using a specific treatment cream to increase blood return and stimulate blood flow
Signs Of Heavy Or Aching Legs
Aching or heavy legs first appear as a sensation of discomfort, fatigue, and heaviness in the legs. These sensations can be the first sign of an actual circulation impairment alongside other characteristics, such as having pain:
- In the interior and posterior area of the calf that radiates up the leg toward the inside of the knee
- Most often felt towards the end of the day
- If you remain standing for a long time or if you are in contact with heat (summer temperatures, hot baths, hot-wax treatments, etc.)
- Increase as the pregnancy progresses
- Relieved by cold temperatures, winter climates, rest, elevation of the legs, and walking
- Accompanied by cramps at night, restlessness of the legs (painful discomfort that requires that one move one’s legs for relief), inflammation (edema of the ankles), varicosities, and even varicose veins
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk about it with your doctor at your next visit. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a suitable treatment for you.
Causes Of Aching Or Heavy Legs
Like most expecting moms, you’re probably wondering what’s causing your aching or heavy legs. The sensation of heavy or aching legs is related to a loss of firmness and elasticity of the vein walls, which causes a slowing of blood circulation in the veins. Because of this, the veins dilate and blood pressure increases.
Valves — the small flaps that normally keep blood from flowing back down the leg veins — have difficulty maintaining this pressure and progressively become deficient.
Resistance to leaks weakens and blood stagnates in the lower portion of the veins, which further impairs vein walls. A vicious cycle takes hold.
On top of this, other factors could be causing your aching legs, such as:
- Nerve pressure: When your uterus expands, it puts pressure on certain nerves, which can trigger spasms and cause pain in your legs.
- Dehydration: If your body doesn’t get the right amount of hydration during your pregnancy — and it needs a lot! — it can really suffer. Whether you’re dealing with morning sickness, stress, or cramps, drinking water can be the easy answer to all your pregnancy woes. When in doubt, take the water route!
- Increase in your weight: Your legs are carrying around more weight than they’re used to. They’re having to work a little harder each day, so at the end of the day, they’re tired just like you.
- Swelling: Swelling is no stranger to pregnancy, especially in the heat. When your ankles and feet start to swell in the heat, as we’ve mentioned above, circulation gets restricted. This is when your legs start to ache and get heavy. (Note: If you notice consistent swelling in your legs and feet, or your leg starts to feel warm, reach out to your obstetrician right away.)
- Changes in your posture as your baby grows: Throughout stages of your pregnancy, your baby has taken different positions inside your uterus. This can take a toll on your body, especially your back. Your posture starts to change throughout your pregnancy without you even noticing at times, but your legs are sure to take notice of the change. Your legs have to support you throughout these different stages, and it can impact them.
- Fluid retention: Your growing uterus puts pressure on the veins that carry blood back from your lower body, which partially blocks blood flow. As a result, fluid remains in your legs and feet.
- Joint laxity: As we’ve discussed, when you’re carrying the extra weight from your precious baby, it’s a lot for your legs — but it’s also a lot for your joints. Your joints can easily become stressed from the added pressure. Your joints may seem a little loose and you might even waddle when you walk!
Most often, your leg aches can be relieved at home. That’s something to shout about because we know leg aches can really be a Debby Downer as you wrap up your day!
Here are a few ideas to relieve your leg aches and heavy legs at the end of the day:
- Stretch your calf muscles by flexing and releasing each foot a few times
- Take short walks throughout the day to boost blood flow
- Avoid standing or sitting with your legs crossed for long periods
- Take a warm bath before bed (After getting out of a relaxing bath, don’t forget to apply Stretch Marks Oil to help limit the appearance of stretch marks! It leaves your skin restored, refreshed, and noticeably smoother.)
- Massage your legs throughout the day and especially before bed (Try using our Body Firming Gel to give your legs a little massage. It hydrates your skin, giving it a firmer look and overall feel.)
- Take a calcium supplement (with the go-ahead from your doctor)
- Drink a glass of milk before bed
- Prop your legs up on a pillow (make sure your legs are elevated above your heart)
- Wear compression leggings or socks
- Increase your potassium intake
If your legs are painful and you see no improvement after trying the recommended measures outlined in the previous section, do not hesitate to see a doctor. They can prescribe suitable treatment for your condition.
Various methods — from medicinal to physical to surgical — may be considered, depending on the severity of your circulatory impairments:
- Compression via pantyhose, stockings, or socks is the basic treatment for anyone experiencing venous insufficiency. Different models are available depending on the strength of compression necessary. Significant progress has been made in improving the esthetics of these garments. The cost of some of these compression methods may be eligible for Social Security reimbursement.
- Venotonics have anti-inflammatory properties, stimulating muscle tone and protecting the elasticity of the vein walls. They must be taken for an extended period of time in order to be effective.
- Kinesitherapy and exercises to build up the leg muscle also have a role to play. Walking, swimming and biking are the best types of activity. Spa treatments, massages, and manual lymphatic drainage can also provide valuable relief.
- If varicose veins developed during your pregnancy and are still present after delivery, vein sclerotherapy or surgery may be considered. These techniques can be performed under local anesthesia, requiring neither an epidural nor general anesthesia, and the patient can go home the same day as treatment, or the following day.
A Comfortable Pregnancy
Aching and heavy legs can be caused by a variety of factors, as we listed above. Although these unpleasant sensations usually disappear on their own after delivery, they should not be taken lightly.
Heavy legs can turn into vascular pathologies that can sometimes be disabling. Monitor your heavy legs closely and give them the appropriate care from the very first signs to limit the risk of complications.
But keep in mind that most often, it’s not a cause for concern or harmful to your baby. Use at-home treatments to ease your leg aches and heavy legs. You may have to try a few before you find what works for you.
And while you’re at it, continue taking care of yourself during your pregnancy by treating your skin. Using the right products that have been clinically proven to effectively help expecting mothers, like our Stretch Marks Cream, will make for one comfortable pregnancy!
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