Our feet continuously feel our entire weight as we walk and stand. This is why foot cramps are more common than other muscle spasms. Foot cramps are involuntary and painful spasms that affect either one or a group of muscles. They can last for minutes or they can continue for days at a time. Generally, the inner arch and toes, especially the big toe, are the most commonly affected part of the foot. Understanding what causes foot cramps can help you prevent them from occurring.
Many people describe foot cramps as a sudden, sharp pain that immobilizes them for a short period, typically less than three minutes. Cramps that come on suddenly tend to disappear after a few minutes, but if your cramps are occurring daily, you should see your podiatrist. While cramps can be a nuisance, they are usually a benign condition. The cause of the cramps is more important than the discomfort and inconvenience they cause. Determining the cause can help us to prevent and treat the problem as soon as it starts.
Foot Cramp Symptoms
If you are experiencing a cramp, you will definitely feel the muscle contracting violently. You may even be able to see it. Other than the cramp itself, additional symptoms may arise, including:
- Pain, which varies in severity and lasts up to a few minutes.
- The muscle may feel hard and tense to the touch.
- You will be able to walk on the cramped muscle.
- Walking may decrease the pain.
What Causes Foot Cramps?
There are several common reasons why foot cramps develop, including:
- Muscle fatigue or stress
- Poor circulation
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Flat feet
- Injury or trauma
- Hormone imbalance
- Increase in activities/exercises
- Failure to stretch foot muscles daily
- Thyroid gland malfunction
- Improper footwear
- Foot problems such as sore feet
- Pinched nerve
In most cases, foot cramps are due to fatigue or stress on the foot. Overworked feet can lead to muscle spasms, especially if you are not getting enough water and nutrients. Foot cramps are most common among athletes and older adults, but they can occur to anyone at any age, including children. As we age, cramps become more common due to our reduced activity levels and the muscle fatigue that occurs when our muscles do not get enough blood. Foot cramps can be a sign of decreased circulation. When the blood supply to our extremities decreases, the extremity does not receive the oxygen it needs to function correctly, thus causing cramping and pain. Medical conditions such as diabetes can cause foot cramps due to the lack of oxygen supplied to the feet.
It is very important that you eat properly and get enough vitamins and minerals. A lack of potassium in your system can cause cramps in your feet and legs. Vitamin D is also important to healthy feet and bones. Dehydration can also be a culprit. Our bodies need water and other fluids, especially ones that provide electrolytes, to function properly and supply blood and oxygen to all parts of our bodies. Smoking and using alcohol can dehydrate the body. So, if you are experiencing foot cramps and smoke or drink, you should consider cutting back on these habits to improve your situation.
Certain medications can also cause cramps. They include:
- Furosemide (a diuretic)
- Donepezil (used for Alzheimer’s disease)
- Neostigmine (used for myasthenia gravis)
- Raloxifene (used to prevent osteoporosis)
- Tolcapone (used for Parkinson’s disease)
- Albuterol, Proventil, and Ventolin (all used to treat asthma)
- Lovastatin (used to lower cholesterol)
It is important to note that this is not a complete list of medications that may cause cramps in your feet as a side effect. You may also experience cramps in your legs, arms, or other parts of your body because of these medications. Talk with your doctor if you take any medications and are experiencing foot cramps. He or she may be able to change your medications to avoid this problem.
Foot Cramp Treatment
If you are suffering from excessive or continual foot cramps, you may want to see a podiatrist or a foot doctor. Your doctor may teach you proper foot-stretching techniques to help relieve the cramping when it begins. If the pain is severe and chronic, your doctor may prescribe you pain killers. Massaging the foot or feet regularly can reduce muscle fatigue. You may also want to consider lifestyle changes. In many cases, simple dietary changes (eliminating sugars and caffeine while increasing your intake of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D) can improve the cramping and pain within days. If your cramps are due to an underlying medical condition, you may want to start by controlling the disease more effectively.
You may also want to try soaking your feet in warm water. Ice packs may also work. The RICE method is almost always effective for treating most types of foot cramps. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Stay off your feet as much as possible and apply ice for twenty minutes at a time. Wrapping your foot in an elastic bandage can also reduce the cramping, and elevation should put the foot at waist level or higher. If elevating your feet increases the cramping or causes more pain, see your podiatrist right away, as there may be a circulation problem that needs to be examined.
To relieve foot cramps at home, try to:
- Pull the toes upward if the cramp is in the toes.
- Pull the foot region where the cramp is located in the opposite direction of the cramp.
- Begin an exercise or stretching routine.
- Wrap the foot in an elastic bandage.
If the foot cramps persist, you should seek medical attention. But if foot cramps are not normal for you and occur suddenly but only periodically, chances are you do not need medical attention and the cramp will eventually go away. Using heating pads and stretching the cramped muscle may help relieve symptoms more quickly.
Preventing Foot Cramps
Regardless of whether you experience foot cramps often or intermittently, there are several things you can do to prevent them from occurring, such as:
- Warming up slowly before all exercise routines
- Giving yourself a “cooling down” period, similar to a warm-up routine, after you’re done with exercise or activity
- Drinking lots of water before and during your exercise routine
- Eating foods that are high in potassium and calcium, such as bananas, milk, yogurt, cheese, and fresh vegetables. These foods are also good for improving muscle function.
- Stretching your foot muscles before getting in and out of bed each day
- Keeping a cup of water next to your bed in case you awaken during the night
- Using proper footwear or orthotics such as inserts or padding to reduce stress on feet
- Keeping your doctors informed of any medications, medical conditions, etc.
- Making sure you give your body adequate rest each day
Talking to Your Doctor
Here are some questions you may want to consider asking your doctor about foot cramps:
- How much of each nutrient (calcium, potassium) should I be taking each day?
- Are there any other vitamins or minerals that may reduce the recurrence of foot cramps?
- What stretches can benefit me most to prevent foot cramps?
- What stretches are best used during a moment of cramping?
- I know there should be a balance of salt and water in my system, so how much sodium should I be consuming each day?
For more information on stretching your foot muscles, please read our article titled Plantar Fasciitis Exercises