Have you ever woken up with a paralyzing stiffness in your calf or foot?
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- Overexertion: If you exercise harder than usual or experience muscle fatigue, this can lead to cramps.
- 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.
- 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:
- Stand with your palms placed against a wall, with arms stretched out.
- Step back with leg of affected calf.
- 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.
Do this stretch while you sit:
- Keep your legs outstretched in front of you.
- Point the toes of your affected foot at the ceiling so that the leg is engaged.
- Take a towel or neck tie and wrap it around your foot, holding it with both hands.
- 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.