Carpal Tunnel, Calf Cramps, and More

The most common pregnancy complaints and what to do about them.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Pain, Pain, Go Away

At five months pregnant, I developed a persistent sore throat and a burning sensation in my chest. Then, over a leisurely meal with my husband, I felt like I was having a heart attack, even though logically, I knew I wasn't. I rushed home from the restaurant, logged on to the Web, and had a lightbulb moment: My potentially life-threatening malady was nothing more than heartburn. I didn't need a doctor, I needed Tums. A lot of them.

Pregnancy, while a meaningful, life-altering nine months, is full of uncomfortable and, at times, downright nasty side effects. What's worse, your heightened emotional state (thanks to those fluctuating hormones) can easily make even a minor problem feel like a full-scale emergency.

So how do you know which symptoms are ER-worthy and which can be remedied with something as simple as an antacid? Here's a guide to the most common pregnancy-related ailments, and what can be done to resolve them.

    Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

    This numbness, tingling, or weakness in the wrists or hands affects up to 17 percent of all pregnant women. "I got terrible carpal tunnel in my arms and wrists, and I could barely move them," says Michelle Leone Riley, of San Francisco, mother of Alexandra, 3, and Michael, 1. "It was made worse by the fact that I was teaching at the time. Grading papers and writing on the board forced me to use my hands and arms a lot."

    The Cause: "Just like feet and hands can swell in pregnancy, the 'tunnel' that the carpal nerve runs through can swell as well, putting pressure on it," explains Michael Broder, MD, author of The Panic-Free Pregnancy (Perigee). "It often develops in the third trimester, when you're most swollen." Don't worry though: Most cases subside within six months of giving birth.

    The Fix: See your doctor to rule out other nerve damage and to get wrist splints that might help ease the pain. At home, elevate your hands by resting them on a pillow on a table or desk to improve circulation, or apply warm compresses on your arms at night.

      Calf Cramps

      "I had insane leg cramps in the middle of the night," remembers Missy Jacobs, of New York, mother of 1-year-old Lily. "I'd wake my husband and beg him to massage them out." Forty-five percent of women experience these shooting pains through the lower legs, most often during the night.

      The Cause: In part, mineral deficiencies, which can come from pregnancy-associated food aversions, vomiting, or other dietary changes, according to Joel Evans, MD, author of The Whole Pregnancy Handbook (Gotham). Plus, carrying such a heavy front load may cause changes in your posture and the way you use your muscles, both of which can lead to cramps.

      The Fix: Make sure you're getting enough magnesium, potassium, and calcium, Dr. Evans says. Eating five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, on top of your prenatal vitamin, should provide the recommended 350 mg of magnesium and 4.7 grams of potassium. But to get your daily dose of 1,500 mg of calcium -- the average prenatal vitamin delivers only 250 mg -- be sure to get in your three to four servings of dairy, eat loads of dark-green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, and ask your doctor to recommend a 1,000 mg calcium supplement.

      It also helps to stretch or massage the muscle and to take breaks from sitting or standing for more than two hours at a time. When cramps do take hold, flex your feet hard (pointing them makes the pain even worse!), or stand up and do calf stretches against the wall.

        Pelvic Pain

        Those sharp jabs or cramps you feel in your side or lower abdomen may certainly induce anxiety, but they're usually harmless. "I went to the emergency room at five months because I thought I was going into early labor," recalls Diana Lawton, of Boston, mother of Oliver, 3.

        "They took a quick look at me and sent me home, saying it was nothing more than round ligament pain, which is really common."

        The Cause: Round ligaments in your pelvis are stretching, like rubber bands, to support your growing uterus. You might feel the pain most acutely around 20 weeks, when your belly really starts to bulge. "Unfortunately, there's no clear way to avoid round ligament pain, though walking or quick movement seems to trigger it in some people," says Dr. Broder.

        The Fix: If your doctor okays it, take Tylenol, suggests Dr. Broder. It can also help to gently massage the tender area. And if you can pinpoint a trigger, avoid it. "You may need to adjust the way you lift groceries or get out of the car, turning your entire body instead of just your upper torso," says Mary Murray, certified nurse midwife and coauthor of The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy (HarperCollins, 2004). In bed at night, pull your legs up, knees to chest, which should provide relief. Warm -- not hot -- baths might help, too.

          Shortness of Breath

          I used to be the power-walker in our relationship, but once my tummy began to show, I had to bark at my husband to slow down because I kept losing my breath. Some 50 percent of pregnant women experience something similar.

          The Cause: Your growing uterus expands upward, limiting how far down the diaphragm, the main muscle we use to inhale, can move. "There's only so much space available in your abdomen, and the uterus uses up quite a bit of it," Dr. Broder says. Shortness of breath may also come from the extra workload placed on the heart by the need to direct blood to the uterus. The heart of a pregnant woman works as hard when she's standing still as that of a non-pregnant woman when she's walking.

          The Fix: Practice good posture, which will open up your airways, and sleep on your side, which puts less pressure on your diaphragm, recommends Murray. When you do feel breathless, sit down and breathe deeply -- in through the nose, out through the mouth -- and have a cool drink. And though it might seem counterintuitive, keep up the moderate aerobic exercise; it lowers your resting heart rate and diminishes your body's demand for oxygen.

            Heartburn

            Nearly 50 percent of pregnant women occasionally feel as if their chest is on fire and may get a sore throat to go with it. My reflux episodes sometimes sent me running to the bathroom to vomit.

            The Cause: Increased estrogen causes all of your muscles to relax, including a sphincter that sits atop the stomach and, like a lid, prevents acids from rising. Once this lid stops sealing tightly, stomach fluids can creep back up into the esophagus, and we're left downing antacids. Heartburn is most acute late in pregnancy, when the uterus exerts more pressure on the stomach, causing reflux.

            The Fix: Eat small, frequent meals and wash them down with a glass of milk, which coats the esophagus and decreases stomach acids. Also steer clear of highly acidic foods, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits like oranges. It also helps to stay upright for around 30 minutes after eating. If you must hit the sheets after a meal, elevate your head with an extra pillow. Lastly, speak to your doctor about an over-the-counter remedy. I found that Zantac, a medicine designed to reduce stomach acids, was the best fix.

              Varicose Veins

              They're unsightly and downright painful, particularly when they spread to the anus, which means, yep, hemorrhoids. Depending on age, nearly 20 to 50 percent of all pregnant women suffer from the bulging blue veins, which may protrude from the surface of the skin on your legs or face in a rope-like manner, explains Luis Navarro, MD, of the Vein Treatment Center, in New York City. You'll see them if they appear on your legs, but if they're in your rear, you'll feel something like a hard pebble when you sit. The discomfort ranges from itching to throbbing pain.

              The Cause: Swollen blood vessels. "Your blood volume increases by three pounds to accommodate a growing baby, and this causes the vein walls to expand," says Navarro. Hormones play a role, too. Increased levels of estrogen and progesterone, which open microscopic channels between the arteries and veins, increase the volume of circulation in your veins. Other hormones relax the connective tissues, making vein walls more elastic.

              The Fix: Lessen your chance of varicose veins by boosting circulation: Do three 20-minute aerobic exercise sessions a week, and wear support socks or stockings, recommends Navarro. You can also elevate your legs to prevent blood from pooling in your veins. The good news? Within six weeks of delivery, many varicose veins recede.

              To help prevent hemorrhoids, avoid getting constipated: Consume as much bran and fiber as your delicate stomach will allow, and be sure to continue exercising, which regulates your bowels. When you do use the bathroom, push gently, since straining exacerbates the problem. For relief of existing hemorrhoids, sink into a warm tub or sitz bath, or try chilled witch hazel pads. Most hemorrhoids improve remarkably after delivery.

                Eyes on the Prize

                Keep the payoff in mind as you endure these not-so-pleasant side effects. As soon as baby is placed in your arms, you'll completely forget what a leg cramp, heartburn, or whatever symptom you're battling felt like in the first place.

                Allison Winn Scotch is a freelance writer in New York City.

                Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.

                All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.