By Rehan Iqbal
If a foot muscle squeezes rapidly and involuntarily and you cannot relax it, you have a foot cramp. This is certainly painful and annoying, but luckily it is not usually dangerous or harmful. In this article, we discuss the causes of foot cramps and share smart tips to help you prevent them whenever possible and treat them when they do occur.
When Do Foot Cramps Happen?
Honestly, the occurrence of foot cramps seems to be fairly random. You may get a cramp in your foot from unusual or excessive exercise, but you are just as likely to get a foot cramp while reading, watching TV or sleeping.
What Do Foot Cramps Feel Like?
You may just get an annoying little twitching in the muscle that doesn’t hurt at all, or you may get a strong, insistent spasm that is extremely painful. In case of the former, you may even see the twitching more than you feel it. In the case of an intense cramp, your foot muscle may become tense and hard. Either type of foot cramp can last moments or minutes and may recur over a longer period of time.
How Can You Prevent Foot Cramps?
Foot cramps are often a symptom of other health problems or imbalances. For this reason, one of the best ways to prevent them is to take good care of yourself overall.
1. Eat well. Be sure to include lots of fruits and veggies in your diet. Foods containing potassium (e.g. bananas, broccoli, green leafy veggies) are especially helpful. Foods containing magnesium (e.g. dried fruit, seeds and nuts, beans and whole grains) are also beneficial.
2. Take your vitamins. In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet, be sure to take a good quality multivitamin. Extra supplementation with calcium, magnesium and potassium can also be very beneficial in preventing muscle cramps. This is especially important in very hot weather or if you have been exercising and sweating a great deal.
3. Stay well hydrated. Remember that we are made up of mostly water, and we use that water up as we go about our daily activities. When you are not well-hydrated, your muscles will tend to be tense and may cramp. Drink plenty of water on a regular basis, and drink more water when it’s hot outside and when you are performing heavy work or exercising.
Note that if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, your body will need more water, and you may be more prone to foot cramps and muscle cramps in general.
4. Wear the right kind of shoes. No matter what you are doing, your feet will be happier and will cramp less (or not at all) if you are wearing comfortable, supportive, well-fitted footwear. Limit wearing of high heels, sandals and other shoes that do not properly support and protect your feet. Developing this good habit can contribute greatly to your overall good health.
5. Exercise regularly. Get a minimum of 15-20 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise daily. Even if your job keeps you on your feet and working hard all day, devote a little time to non-aerobic exercise such as swimming, cycling, stretching, yoga and the like. This type of exercise is recreational and restorative and contributes to your overall good health and well-being.
6. Exercise correctly. Remember to stretch your muscles before and after exercising. This will prevent foot cramps and other muscle cramps.
7. Get enough sleep. Good sleep is restorative. Tired damaged muscles are far more likely to hurt and cramp. While we sleep, our muscles relax and repair.
8. Sleep freely. Take care not to confine yourself with tightly tucked sheets and blankets. Give your feet enough room to move around at the foot of your bed.
9. Stretch upon arising and at bedtime. Do a few stretches and massage your feet a bit before you get out of bed in the morning and before you go to bed at night. This practice will help you relax at the start and finish of your day, and it helps you sleep well and cramp free.
10. Try aromatherapy. When you give yourself a foot massage at bedtime, include some relaxing essential oils, such as oil of coriander, chamomile, geranium or ylang-ylang.
What Causes Night-time Foot Cramps?
A sedentary lifestyle can cause nighttime foot cramps, or simply sitting around in the evening and then going straight to bed. If you’ve been sitting (especially with poor posture) for a long time, you may have limited the flow of blood to your feet. This kind of sitting can also cause compressed nerves. Both of these situations can cause foot cramps.
Drinking alcohol during the evening (and at other times) can cause depletion of B vitamins in your system. This can cause interference with nerve function and may also cause alcoholic neuropathy, which leads to tingling, weakness, numbness and cramping in the lower legs and feet.
A poor sleeping position may also interfere with blood flow or cause nerve compression. If you sleep on your side, try putting a pillow between your knees to prevent this problem. If you sleep on your stomach with your feet pointed down, you may want to try sleeping on your back with your feet slightly elevated instead.
The importance of good footwear cannot be stressed enough. If your feet are just exhausted from walking or standing on hard surfaces and/or wearing non-supportive, improperly fitted, uncomfortable shoes, you may experience night time foot cramps even if you stretch at bedtime and sleep in a good position.
What Can You Do About Foot Cramps?
There are quite a few things you can do to treat foot cramps. Among them are:
1. Massage the cramp and stretch your foot with your hands.
2. Place an exercise band, towel, belt or something similar around the ball of your foot and gently pull your toes upward while pressing down with your heels.
3. Stand and carefully, gradually allow your cramped foot to bear weight. Don’t do this suddenly as it will definitely hurt, and it may even end up breaking bones if your bones are brittle.
4. Flex your feet by lifting up with your toes and pushing down with your heels.
5. As the cramp loosens, try walking on your heels a bit.
6. If the cramp will not loosen or the area remains painful, try heat or ice (your choice) to help relieve the pain.
7. Soak your feet in a tub of very warm water or use a massaging foot bath if you have one.
8. If the ache persists, use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage the pain.
9. Review any medications you may be taking to see if any of them cause muscle cramps as a side-effect. For example, if you are taking birth control pills, blood pressure meds, diuretics or statins, they may be contributing to your problem.
10. If your foot cramps recur frequently or do not resolve with the suggestions above, see your doctor. Persistent foot cramps may be symptomatic of serious medical conditions, such as:
Additionally, if your foot cramps are accompanied by symptoms indicating infection (e.g. heat, redness, swelling) you should see your doctor right away.
It is also worth noting that foot cramps may be one of many indications of pregnancy.
Are Pregnancy Related Foot Cramps Permanent?
By following the tips presented here, you should be able to get pregnancy induced foot cramps under control during your pregnancy and on an ongoing basis. Remember that it is especially important to eat right, rest well, exercise moderately and stay well hydrated while you are pregnant. After your baby arrives, you may find self care challenging, but hopefully establishing good self-care habits during pregnancy will give you a head start!