Heavy legs? Here’s how to relieve them effectively
Why do your legs get so heavy?
One out of every two women are affected by heavy legs syndrome.
This is no surprise, given that hormonal variations--from puberty to inappropriate oral contraceptives to menopause--are largely responsible. Still, this weary, heavy, and sometimes very painful feeling occurs most frequently during pregnancy. It’s mechanical: The purpose of the veins is to bring blood back to the heart. In the legs, this venous return depends on blood pressure (activated by muscle contractions) and the tone of the veins’ walls, along which are placed valves that are supposed to prevent the blood from flowing back down. When these valves are weakened for various reasons, instead of flowing back up, the blood pools and causes a feeling of heaviness: this is heavy legs syndrome, one of the first signs of venous insufficiency.
It’s closely related to pregnancy: Starting in the first trimester of pregnancy, the influx of progesterone reduces tone in the walls of the veins, while estrogens promote oedemas. Over the months, the increased volume of the uterus places increased pressure on the main vein responsible for returning blood to the heart. And at the end of pregnancy, when blood pressure is 2 or 3 times higher, the veins distend and the valves are pushed open, no longer preventing this return flow. All of these factors make pregnancy a period particularly prone to heavy legs.
When should you pay special attention?
In the third trimester, very few future mothers are spared from heavy legs! However, the syndrome varies widely from one woman to another. In some cases, it’s best to pay close attention to prevent venous insufficiency from resulting in varicose veins. If you have a family history: When both your parents have suffered from venous insufficiency, there is a 70% risk that you will as well; the risk is 43% if only one of your parents is affected. But even without a family history, it becomes even more important to remain vigilant with age: the quality and quantity of collagen and elastin in the vein walls both diminish, as does the number of muscle cells that participate in the beats that push blood upward. If it’s not your first pregnancy: The risk of venous insufficiency increases with the number of pregnancies, increasing from 23% with a third pregnancy to 31% with a fourth If you are overweight and sedentary: More weight means more dilated veins, which makes the valves ineffective. And the more pounds you put on, the more difficult it becomes to exercise--which makes you less likely to do so.
However, a sedentary lifestyle contributes to heavy legs syndrome. This is why it is important to limit weight gain before and during pregnancy. If you are still working: Sometimes maternity leave begins late in the pregnancy. Any job requiring you to stand for long hours (shopkeeper, nurse, etc.) or remain sedentary (office jobs in general) places you at greater risk of suffering from heavy legs.
What new habits should you adopt?
It’s never too late to make good resolutions to help relieve heavy legs. After all, even if the problems improve spontaneously after childbirth, doing nothing to counteract them would weaken the vein walls.
Walk:Your legs are made for it, and walking for half an hour a day strengthens the venous walls, activating venous return via little pumps at the base of your feet which pump blood upwards with each step that you take. Wear looser clothing: Never wear strappy shoes that cut across the instep, which is a key point in venous return.
Avoid flat shoes that pull on the calf and prevent the muscle from actively contracting, blocking venous return.
Don’t wear excessively tight boots or clothing, or stiletto heels. Prioritize comfort above all!
Watch your diet: The goal is to avoid excess weight gain while fighting constipation and water retention. Prioritize the fiber and vitamins found in fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated to flush out toxins. Above all, avoid alcohol, which has a dilating effect.
Avoid heat: Don't stay out in the sun for too long, avoid exposing your feet to too much heat and don't use hot wax on your legs – heat dilates the veins. Uncross your legs: Whether at home or at the office, get up frequently to stretch your legs. It’s also important that you take a few minutes to roll a ball under your bare feet to stimulate the muscles, and thus venous return... and to force yourself to stop crossing your legs, which is a very harmful habit. Raise the bed: The feet at the end of the bed should be raised by around 10 cm – not the mattress, otherwise you will have a backache when you wake up. Another effective way to promote venous return is to put your feet against a wall for 5 to 10 minutes, twice per day.
Your daily leg care regimen: Simple, enjoyable, and effective: those are the common denominators for these rituals, which it would be a real shame to miss out on! Cool showers: From now on, it’s best to skip the bath, or at least limit the temperature to 34°C (93°F) and take it at the end of the day to avoid starting off with dilated veins. Always finish with a spray of cool water, working from your ankles up to the top of your thighs, to energize venous return.
Anti-heavy legs creams: These are essential. Made from draining, toning plants like ruscus, gingko, and red vine, together with refreshing extracts such as menthol to transport these active ingredients across the skin barrier, they immediately soothe sensations of heaviness. Some even improve tone in the legs by activating circulation and the production of support fibers. For best results, always apply them with a gentle massage, working up from the ankles to the groin. Never work downward.
Support: The effectiveness of support stockings, hose, or socks on venous return has long since been demonstrated. So-called comfort hosiery is appropriate only for mild symptoms and not reimbursed by French health care. For severe heaviness, class 1 and 2 support products are delivered in pharmacies by medical prescription.
Active vascular gymnastics: This stimulates the postural muscles, which are close to the bones and thus more involved in vein tone.
For example: in a seated position, clench your knees together while pushing them outward with your hands; hold the pose for 20 seconds and repeat 10 times. What are the best medical techniques? If your legs remain heavy and become painful despite good habits and home care, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor. Prescription vein tonics can provide valuable help, as can techniques to stimulate venous return.
Pressotherapy: This treatment consists of placing the leg in a sheathe that places more pressure on the ankles than the thighs to stimulate venous return. This technique, which is sometimes reimbursable by prescription, has nothing to do with the inflatable boots in beauty parlors.
Lymphatic drainage: This manual massage, which alternates different levels of pressure and should always be performed by a physical therapist, is designed to break up edemas and restart lymphatic return. It is reimbursed by French health insurance under certain conditions.