Our feet continuously feel the maximum amount of our weight as we walk and stand. This is why foot cramps are more common than other muscle spasms in the body. 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 on 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 has the potential to immobilize them for a short period of time, typically 1-3 minutes. Cramps that come on suddenly and non-routinely tend to disappear after a few minutes. However, for some people the cramping can be something that is dealt with daily. If this is your case, you should see your podiatrist. While cramps can be a nuisance for some, they are usually a benign condition. What is more important is the cause of the cramps, the discomfort and inconvenience they cause. Learning these things can 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, varies in severity and lasts up to a few minutes
- Muscle may feel hard and tense to the touch
- You will be able to walk on the cramped muscle
- Walking may decrease pain felt
What Causes Foot Cramps?
There are several common causes 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
- Lack of stretching foot muscles daily
- Thyroid gland malfunction
- Improper footwear
- Foot problems such as sore feet
- Pinched nerve
- Alcohol or tobacco use
In most cases, foot cramps are due to fatigue or stress to the foot. Overworked feet can lead to muscle spasms, especially if you are not receiving 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 reduced activity levels or muscle fatigue when our muscles do not get enough blood. Foot cramps can be a sign of decreased circulation. When the blood supply to our extremities see a decrease, the extremity does not receive the amount of oxygen it should 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 receive enough vitamins and minerals. The lack of potassium in your system can cause cramps in your feet and legs. Vitamin D is also a major component 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 (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 these medications (not a complete list) may or may not cause cramps in your feet as a side effect. You may 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 potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin D) can improve the cramping and pain within days as the body receives the nutrients its been craving. If your cramps are due to an underlying medical condition, you may want to start with controlling the condition or disease more effectively.
You may also want to try soaking your feet in warm water for a period of time. Ice packs may also work. The RICE method is almost always effective when treating most types of foot cramps. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Stay off your feet as often as possible and apply ice for a period of 20 minutes at a time. Wrapping your foot in an elastic bandage can also reduce the cramping, and elevation should occur with the foot at a minimum of waist level or higher. If elevation of 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, or
- Pull the foot region where the cramp is located in the opposite direction of the cramp
- Begin an exercise or stretching routine. Consult with your doctor
- Wrap the foot in an elastic bandage, if necessary
If the foot cramps persist, you should seek medical attention. However, if foot cramps are not normal for you and occur suddenly but 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 you relieve symptoms sooner.
Preventing Foot Cramps
Regardless if 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 any and all exercise routines
- Having a ‘cooling down’ period, similar to a warm-up routine for after your done with your exercise or activity
- Drink lots of water before and during your exercise routine
- Eat 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.
- Stretch your foot muscles before getting in and out of bed each day
- Keep a cup of water next to your bed in case you awake during the night
- Use proper footwear, orthotics such as inserts or padding to reduce stress on feet
- Keep all doctors informed of any medications, medical conditions, etc.
- Make 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 decrease 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