Foot Cramps: Causes and Treatments

Foot Cramps: Causes and Treatments


Muscle cramps, including foot cramps, are a common complaint. These cramps can affect your ability to move and are often the result of a single muscle or muscle group contracting or spasming.

Spasms can happen for many reasons—some that are surprising and some that seem obvious. While muscle strains or a pinched nerve can often cause cramps, not drinking enough water is one of the most common reasons for foot cramps.

Foot cramps can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). It’s worth noting that while anyone can develop foot cramps, infants, older adults, athletes, and pregnant people experience muscle cramps more often. Getting a diagnosis of the underlying cause of your cramps can help you find effective treatments for relief.

How painful foot cramps are can vary from person to person. Cramps can last just a few seconds up or up to 15 minutes and can range from a dull ache to an intense pain. Your cramps may also come and go over a short or long time. While foot cramps can affect any part of the foot, the arch is a common location.

Many people experience foot and leg cramps at night, known as nocturnal muscle cramps. More than one-third of people over age 60 have nocturnal foot cramps. Pregnant people also commonly experience nocturnal leg cramps, especially during the final three months of pregnancy.

Some causes of foot cramps are temporary conditions you can resolve at home. Other causes may stem from a chronic health condition needing ongoing treatment.

Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when your body has lost more fluids than you have taken in. This can cause your fluid levels to become dangerously low, making it difficult for your muscles to get the water they need to operate properly. Foot cramps can occur when your muscles can’t function as they should.

You might become dehydrated if you:

  • Sweat a lot due to exercise, hot weather, or a medical condition
  • Experience diarrhea or vomiting
  • Sustain a fever due to an infection
  • Are not drinking enough water
  • Urinate (pee) too much because of certain medications or health conditions

Electrolyte Imbalance

Dehydration also can lead to low electrolytes such as potassium, sodium, and magnesium. Electrolytes are minerals that have many important bodily functions, including helping to keep your muscles, nerves, heart, and bones healthy. When you have lost too many electrolytes, your muscles may start cramping. Other causes of electrolyte imbalance can include:

  • Taking medications such as diuretics
  • Receiving dialysis treatment
  • Having liver, kidney, or heart problems

Muscle Strain or Overuse

Intense exercise or overuse of a particular muscle can strain the muscles in your legs or feet. During vigorous exercise, your muscles and the nerves that tell them what to do may become fatigued (or, excessively tired). The nerves may begin to misfire, telling the muscles to contract constantly, instead of relaxing.

You may have a higher risk of developing strains if you live with obesity or are an endurance athlete.

Nerve Damage

Damage to the nerves outside the central nervous system is called peripheral neuropathy. This type of damage usually affects the nerves in the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Diabetes is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy, but an injury to the foot can also pinch or damage the nerves and lead to food cramping and pain.

Sometimes, irritation or damage to the nerves of the feet causes the tissue around the nerves to thicken. This thickened spot is called a neuroma, and it can cause pain in the ball of the foot.

Symptoms of neuroma usually begin with a slight ache under the third or fourth toe, which can then progress to a feeling of burning or tingling. Neuromas can result from or worsen when wearing shoes that are too tight for your toes.

Poor Circulation

Poor blood circulation to the leg and foot muscles can also cause cramping. This is because the muscles are not getting enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly. When blood does not flow out of the muscles as it should, toxins can build up in the muscles, which may lead to cramping.

Obesity, blood clots, dehydration, hypothyroidism, and smoking can all increase the risk of poor circulation.

Pregnancy

About half of pregnant people experience muscle cramps. These cramps can occur because pregnancy may increase your risk of several conditions that can cause foot cramps, including:

  • Muscle strain in the legs due to carrying more weight
  • Nerve compression from weight gain or the growing fetus
  • Electrolyte imbalance stemming from the fetus’s increasing need for minerals
  • Reduced blood circulation to the muscles of the legs

Other Causes

Foot cramps can sometimes result from underlying chronic health conditions or their treatments. Some examples of conditions that may contribute to foot cramps include:

In some cases, the following medications can also cause foot cramps:

  • Long-acting beta-agonists for asthma and lung disease
  • Diuretics for hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) for nasal congestion
  • Statins for high cholesterol

Like most muscle cramps, foot cramps are very common and typically not a cause for concern. However, if your foot cramps are severe, frequent, or long-lasting, visit your healthcare provider to diagnose the cause. If you have muscle weakness, redness, or swelling alongside your foot cramps, seek medical attention right away as this may be a more serious condition.

Along with primary care providers, podiatrists (foot doctors) can help you understand the cause of your foot cramps. Neurologists (doctors who specialize in the brain and spinal cord) or endocrinologists (doctors who specialize in hormones) can also offer guidance if your foot cramping is due to peripheral neuropathy. 

At your appointment, your provider will likely take your medical history and perform a physical exam to rule out any underlying disease causing the cramps. If they suspect an underlying condition, they may perform other tests, such as:

  • Blood tests to measure your electrolyte and blood sugar levels or look for kidney or thyroid problems
  • Electromyography (a test that measures electrical activity in the muscle) to check for nerve or muscle disorders, which is often coupled with a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) study (can identify nerve damage)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or computed tomography (CT) scan to assess for neurological (brain-related) problems

If your symptoms are due to an underlying health condition (like diabetes or peripheral neuropathy), your healthcare provider will treat the underlying condition which may, in turn, reduce your foot cramps. In most cases, home remedies can offer symptom relief. Your provider may recommend the following strategies:

  • Stretching and massaging the affected muscle until the cramp passes
  • Trying heat or ice therapy to improve inflammation or soreness heat to your foot
  • Drinking more fluids to rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes
  • Eating foods rich in electrolytes, like yogurt, bananas, and spinach

Along with treating any underlying medical cause of your foot cramps, you can also prevent future cramping by adding these habits to your daily routine:

  • Stretch your leg and foot muscles
  • Warm up before exercising
  • Drink more water
  • Limit exercising in extreme heat
  • Avoid wearing poorly fitting shoes

Foot cramps commonly occur after intense exercise or becoming dehydrated. While cramping is common, foot cramps can be bothersome and make it difficult to move around. Fortunately, several home remedies, like stretching and ice or heat therapy, can relieve symptoms.

If your foot cramping doesn’t go away, it may indicate an underlying condition. In such cases, getting a diagnosis from your provider can help you get the treatment you need to feel better.

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