If you’ve ever had a foot cramp, you know how uncomfortable – and even painful – it can be. Foot cramps happen when your foot muscles involuntarily contract. Foot and leg cramps (also called charley horses) are closely related. An estimated one in three adults will be affected by lower limb muscle cramps in their lifetime.1As many as 60 percent of adults have suffered from nighttime foot and leg cramps during sleep.2 The good news is, although they can be inconvenient, these types of muscle cramps are usually harmless.
Researchers believe muscle cramping occurs when neurons in the spinal cord fire excessively.3 These neurons control the contraction of muscles. But what causes the neurons to over-fire in the first place? In other words, what causes foot cramps?
Foot cramping often occurs with no known cause. However, there are some medical reasons for foot cramps. Here are some of the most common causes, as well as the best ways to combat them.
Dehydration was once thought to be a major contributing factor for muscle cramps. Recent research has shown that mild dehydration may not be the cause of exercise-induced cramps.4 Still, it doesn’t hurt to keep your body hydrated. Not getting enough water in your body can cause a host of health problems. The amount of water your body needs to stay hydrated varies according to your weight, gender, and level of activity. The Institute of Medicine’s 2004 guidelines state that women should consume an average of 2.7 liters of water per day from all foods and beverages. Men should consume an average of 3.7 liters.5
Exercising Without Stretching
Most people stretch their arms and legs before they exercise, but did you know you can stretch your feet as well?6 Stretching your calves and feet before exercising is a great way to prevent cramping. Also, don’t exercise right after you eat. 7 Listen to your body – especially your feet – and when you work out, don’t overdo it.
Side Effects of Some Medications
Certain medications can have the unpleasant side effect of foot and leg cramps. Examples of medicines that can cause cramping include some diuretics, antipsychotics, beta-blockers, fibrates and statins, ACE inhibitors, beta2-agonists, and angiotensin II-receptor blockers. 8 If you suspect your medication is causing your foot cramps, talk to your doctor to see if you could be switched to a different medicine.
Age and Activity Level
Foot cramps are more common in older adults. Nerves and muscles can wear out as aging occurs, causing cramping. 9 Stretching, staying active, and eating a nutritious diet can help older adults prevent leg cramps. People of any age who lead a sedentary lifestyle are also at higher risk for leg and foot cramps. 10 Becoming more active, as well as losing weight, can help alleviate foot cramping for some people.
Certain Medical Conditions
Many pregnant women suffer from foot and leg cramping, particularly in the second and third trimesters.11 Other medical conditions that can cause foot cramping include Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, multiple sclerosis, Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD), and kidney disease. 12,13 Talk to your doctor if you have one of these conditions and suffer from excessive foot cramps.
If your body is low in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, or potassium, you could be at higher risk for foot and leg cramps. 14 Try taking supplements of these essential nutrients, or eating their equivalency in foods, to stop cramping. Eat dairy foods for more calcium. Leafy green veggies, as well as nuts, beans, and seeds are high in magnesium. Bananas and avocados are full of potassium.
Sodium is also plays a role in foot cramping – your body needs a small amount of sodium to properly contract and relax your muscles. 15 Although most people get more than enough sodium in their diets, you should talk to your doctor if you think you have a sodium deficiency.
Wearing poorly fitted shoes can also cause foot cramps for some people. 16 Many women love wearing high-heeled shoes, but these can often cause foot cramps as well. Wear supportive, comfortable shoes whenever possible.
Foot Cramps While Sleeping
Some people experience foot cramping only at nighttime, often when they’re sleeping. Why does this happen only at this one time of day? Well, most medical professionals believe it’s because you’ve finally “stopped” for the day and your body is finally catching up with you. Especially in the form of muscle fatigue.
For example, if you’ve been standing all day, especially on hard floors, when you finally lay down and relax your feet start to cramp. Likewise, not drinking enough water or getting enough electrolytes from the food you eat can come back to haunt you when you finally lay down to rest.17
The pressures of pregnancy on the body, or the fact that the foot is passively pointed while you’re sleeping, have also been illuminated as potential causes of nighttime foot cramping. While medication-induced cramping also seems to hit a vast majority of people at night. Though there is no real reason why this happens, it is a frequently reported occurrence.18
Nocturnal foot cramps can also be related to circulation disorders, especially in older people, so it’s important that you talk to your doctor if your cramps are persistent or stopping you from sleeping.19
Additional Ways to Stop Foot Cramping
Aside from the strategies mentioned with each cause of foot cramping above, there are several other things you can do for foot cramps. Massaging your feet, especially in the middle of a cramp, can help. If you are in pain, try taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Cool or hot compresses can also relieve muscle pain.
In a recent study at Brigham Young University, researchers found that pickle juice was effective at stopping exercise-induced cramps once they started.20Scientists aren’t sure why this worked, but they think it may have something to do with muscle fatigue.
When to Call Your Doctor
You should contact your doctor if your foot and leg cramps are severe and occur frequently.21Other reasons for calling your doctor about muscle cramping include muscle weakness and atrophy and the inability to sleep because of nighttime cramps. Alcoholics who experience foot and leg cramping should seek medical care.
Although foot cramping can be a briefly painful annoyance, it is usually not serious. Take good care of your body, and you will experience less incidence of foot cramps.
Article updated: March 13, 2018
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