We all know (or can at least imagine) the toll that being pregnant takes on a woman’s body – you can be affected quite literally from head to toe. This is especially true during the last trimester, when the list of symptoms and issues just keeps on growing.
One particular issue is taking care of your legs and feet, which can have a tendency to swell and cause pain in the last few weeks leading up to the birth. As your baby grows, so your uterus grows with it and starts impeding on your other internal organs. Your pelvis is squashed into an increasingly smaller space and so the veins within it also become compressed, slowing down the blood flow into your legs and feet. At the same time, your body produces up to 50% more blood and bodily fluids during pregnancy to meet the needs of your growing baby and to help lubricate and prepare the pelvic joints for delivery.
The combination of squeezed organs, restricted veins and increased bodily fluids can all lead to a condition known as oedema, or swelling in the hands, face, legs, ankles and feet. While oedema is a normal pregnancy symptom, it should still be monitored carefully as it can cause pain and discomfort and become dangerous if left untreated. External factors, such as warmer temperatures, having to stand a lot while pregnant, too much physical exertion and a high level of caffeine intake can exacerbate the problem.
Swollen legs? Act now!
Symptoms of an oedema include heavy or tired legs and feet, swollen legs or ankles and the appearance of dark veins in your legs. Smaller, thinner veins are known as thread veins, while deeper ones are called varicose veins. These latter veins must be treated right away, as they can lead on to more serious, life-threatening conditions, such as DVT (deep vein thrombosis). If you are concerned about your legs, ankles or feet during pregnancy consult your doctor or midwife straight away. Equally, if you see or feel a sudden swelling in your face or hands you must seek urgent medical attention, as this can be a sign of something serious like preeclampsia.
In the meantime, try to remain active without tiring yourself out. When you feel tired, uncomfortable, or simply in need of a rest, sit or lie down with your ankles elevated so that they are higher than your bump. Try to remain in this position for at least 20 minutes to help your legs recover and to encourage any excess fluid to drain away and ease the pressure from your lower half. You may also be able to reduce the swelling a little by eating a banana (for the potassium) and avoiding caffeine. Stop wearing high heels and avoid clothes that are tight around your wrists or ankles. A cold compress will also offer relief from discomfort caused by swelling.
Sock it to ‘em
A major way to ease leg pain and reduce swelling, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place, is to invest in a pair (or several) or maternity compression socks or tights. These are tight-fitting, sturdy hosiery that fit closely around your legs and feet to promote healthy circulation of the blood and ward off thread or varicose veins. They work by squeezing the leg tissues and the walls of your veins to help the blood flow back to your heart. They counteract any weaknesses in the lower legs that could lead to blood pooling. Additionally, they can improve the flow of the lymph fluid in your legs to help reduce swelling in the tissue.
Compression tights designed for pregnancy also tends to have built in support for your stomach, bump and lower back and are well-proven to soothe aches and pains and to reduce swelling in the legs, ankles and feet. They come in a variety of sizes –use a tape measure to measure the circumference of your legs at various places, such as your ankle, calf and thigh in order to find the closest fit.
Get the compression look
Compression tights and socks also come in a variety of colors and styles to suit your look; gone are the days of unsightly, white hospital versions being your only option. If you are concerned about skin infections or other medical conditions that could be adversely affected by wearing compression hosiery, seek expert medical advice before starting to use them.
Try to keep your compression socks or tights on all day, taking them off to go to bed. You may like to get two or three pairs so that you always have a clean pair available when others are in the wash. It can be easier to put them back on in the morning before you get out of bed to reduce the risk of swelling taking place before you have a chance to get dressed.
Make sure there are no folds or wrinkles in them that could dig into your leg and exert excess pressure on the skin. Do this by smoothing your compression tights or socks down with the palms of your hands to check that they are sitting correctly. They come in different levels of compression, from light to very strong, and it’s best to start with a lighter version first to make sure that you feel comfortable wearing them.
Another advantage to compression socks and tights is that they can also be used during long-haul flights and travel when your legs are also at an increased risk of DVT from sitting still for hours in a confined space. Always follow your doctor or midwife’s advice when it comes to flying and travelling during pregnancy. Don’t forget that you can always keep your compression socks or tights for use during long flights after the baby has been born, or simply for wearing at home if you feel weary or uncomfortable, or if you find yourself standing for long periods at a time when you are back at work.