There’s no feeling quite like the sudden, painful and involuntary tightening in your feet and legs that we know as a cramp. During a foot or leg cramp, the affected muscle forcefully contracts, and you may notice your toes curling, your foot pointing down, or your muscle bulging in response. Cramps can last from a few seconds to many minutes, and no one is immune to them – not even us podiatrists!
What Causes Cramps?
It can be very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your cramp. Some cramps have an attributable cause, while others are idiopathic, meaning the origin is unknown. Some causes that may lead to foot and leg cramps include:
- Muscle fatigue – exercising too hard or overexerting yourself during your day can place excess strain on the muscles in your feet and legs, causing them to cramp
- Being pregnant – pregnancy places more pressure on your feet and legs with the added weight, increased blood volume, and potential swelling in the feet and legs
- Dehydration – if your muscles don’t get enough water to function properly, you may be more susceptible to cramps and muscle spasms
- Medical conditions – having liver disease, spinal nerve compression, alcoholism, kidney failure, hypothyroidism, or diabetes increases your risk of cramps
- Certain medications – can also increase your risk of cramps, such as those used to help lower your cholesterol levels
- Mineral depletion – calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium are minerals that contribute to healthy muscle function. When you are low in any of them, you may experience muscle cramps
- Foot or leg injuries or problems – having an injury may change the way you walk to stay more comfortable, and you may end up overusing other muscles, leading to muscle fatigue and cramping
- Tight shoes – tight shoes can restrict your foot’s natural movement and lead to cramps
As uncomfortable as it may feel, stretching or moving the affected muscles is your best bet to help relieve your cramp. If you’re getting cramps in your calves, and you have a staircase, stand with the front half of your feet on a step and your heels off the edge. Gently lower your heels so that they are below the level of the step. Hold for a few seconds and lift the heels back up. If you don’t have a staircase, sit with your legs straight out in front, place a towel around the balls of your feet and hang onto the towel on both ends with your hands; gently pull your toes toward you while keeping your knee straight.
A hot cloth, wheat bag, or cold cloth or ice pack can help relax the muscle, and thereby help alleviate the cramp.
Cramps At Night
Three out of four cramps happen in the nighttime, often when you’re in bed or asleep. No definitive research has revealed precisely why leg cramps have a higher prevalence at night, but it’s thought that it could be related to the position our feet and legs are in while we sleep – with our toes and feet extended, which shortens the calf muscles. Other suggestions include muscle fatigue from exercise during the day or standing for long periods.
Preventing Leg Cramps
Regular stretching during the day, especially before and after exercise, is a good start towards preventing leg cramps or reducing the rate at which they occur. You’ll also want to address any suspected causes of your cramps, which may include:
- Avoiding dehydration to help your muscles to function at their best
- Maintaining optimal mineral levels. This is usually managed through a balanced diet. Improve your calcium, potassium and magnesium intake naturally by drinking milk and orange juice and eating bananas, black beans and leafy greens. Sodium is simply table salt, so sprinkle a little bit on your meal if you are not having enough already
- Not exercising too hard to prevent overexertion and muscle fatigue
- Treating any existing foot problems
- Wearing well-fitting, comfortable shoes
Worried About Your Feet Or Legs?
If you’re concerned about your foot or leg health, our experienced podiatry team is here to help. We’re located on the border of Remuera and Newmarket, at the One Health building. Book your appointment by calling us on 09 523 2333 or click here.