September 9, 2020/Exercise & Fitness

Don’t Let Foot Cramps and Charley Horses Slow You Down

7 causes and remedies for foot cramps and charley horses

seated person pulling their toes

Have you ever woken up with a paralyzing stiffness in your calf or foot?


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Whether you call it a foot or leg cramp (aka “charley horse”), it’s a common, somewhat mysterious pain that happens when a muscle gets involuntarily stiff and can’t relax.

“They tend to happen more frequently as we age,” says sports medicine specialist Caitlin Lewis, MD. “While they can be uncomfortable, they are rarely harmful.”

7 common causes for cramps

Whether day or night, your foot and calf muscles can spasm or cramp. So can various other muscles in your body.

Why? The most common causes for muscle cramps include:

  1. Lack of hydration: “If you’re experiencing cramping, it’s important to look at your hydration first,” Dr. Lewis says. Make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day.
  2. Problems with nutrition: While a balance of electrolytes (calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium) is essential for the contraction and relaxation of a muscle, it’s best not to simply self-treat with supplements. Instead, Dr. Lewis suggests eating a variety of foods, including plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables such as leafy greens and bananas to add a balance of electrolytes to you diet.
  3. Side effect of medication: Some medications such as statins and diuretics can cause muscle cramps. A tip-off is when cramps start suddenly after you begin taking a new medication. If this happens, let your healthcare provider know.
  4. Not stretching enough: Taking time to stretch each day can help. “You want your muscles to be as strong and supple as they can be,” Dr. Lewis says. “Adequate stretching after a brief warm-up period or after a shower is key to this.”
  5. Overexertion: If you exercise harder than usual or experience muscle fatigue, this can lead to cramps.
  6. Poor circulation: If you have cramping that gets worse when you walk, it could be a problem with your circulation. “Some circulation problems cause pain that feels like cramping. If it gets worse when you walk, or if you have cramps that just don’t stop, definitely see your primary care doctor,” Dr. Lewis says.
  7. The wrong shoes: A lesser-known cause for muscle cramping is your footwear. “You want to look at your shoes, especially if you changed from flats to heels, as this also can cause cramps,” Dr. Lewis says.

How to stop leg and foot cramps

There are some simple ways to respond to leg and foot cramps:

  • If it happens while you’re lying down, try to simply stand up and put some weight on the affected leg or foot. This can sometimes be enough to stop that tender stiffness.
  • Use warmth/heating pads to increase blood circulation to the muscle and to relax it. Soaking in a warm tub of Epsom salt can also help ease the tension.
  • For more stubborn pain, you can try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen.

Easy stretches to keep calves and feet happy

Here are some simple stretches that can help stop pain and prevent it.

Basic calf stretch

This calf stretch is commonly used by runners. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand with your palms placed against a wall, with arms stretched out.
  2. Step back with leg of affected calf.
  3. Lean forward on the other leg and push against the wall. You should feel a stretch in your calf muscle and the back of the leg.


Towel stretch

Do this stretch while you sit:

  1. Keep your legs outstretched in front of you.
  2. Point the toes of your affected foot at the ceiling so that the leg is engaged.
  3. Take a towel or neck tie and wrap it around your foot, holding it with both hands.
  4. Lift the leg slightly until you feel a good stretch.

If leg or foot cramps are an occasional occurrence, you can generally manage them yourself. However, if they happen frequently, are severe, or if you are concerned any of your medications are the culprit, talk to your doctor. They could signal a medical problem that requires treatment.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

man stretching legs after exercising
August 23, 2020/Primary Care
How to Prevent Leg Cramps and Treat Them at Home

Shake loose with these tips and home remedies

Hand holding cellphone with walking app, with feet walking and footprints
May 17, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Should You Aim To Walk 10,000 Steps a Day?

Walking is a great goal, but how many steps are best for you depends on factors like your fitness level and age

Person walking on walking pad at home office desk
May 16, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
What’s a Walking Pad — And Do They Really Work?

A walking pad is a simplified treadmill that can fit under your desk and help you get more movement in your day

Person stretching on floor mats in their home gym area
May 8, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Strength Finder: How To Create a Home Gym You’ll Use

First, reflect on your specific workout goals, and then pick and choose your fitness equipment

Person jogging in foggy park among big, green trees
May 2, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
What Is Slow Running and Does It Work?

Reducing your pace allows you to log more miles and train your body for the stress of running

Person walking on home treadmill
May 1, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
The Benefits of Adding a ‘Deload Week’ to Your Workout Plan

Easing up on your routine can help your body recover and get stronger

Person holding digital tablet with workout routine video playing
April 29, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
Fitness on a Budget: How To Exercise on the Cheap

You don’t need to spend big money on better health

Diverse group of friends on a hike
April 25, 2024/Exercise & Fitness
How To Find ‘Joyful Movement’ in Every Day

This simple phrase encourages you to enjoy your workouts, not dread them

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey