One minute you’re fine—and the next, yelp! You have a foot cramp that’s so painful you don’t know what to do with yourself. (If you’re like me, you start hopping up and down on it in hopes of making it stop!) Sometimes foot cramps can wake you when you’re asleep…or even strike in the middle of a workout. They can also occur when you’re just sitting—for instance, when driving or simply relaxing on the couch. No matter when they happen, they disrupt whatever you’re doing.
The big question: When you’re in the grip of a foot cramp, what can you do to ease it? That’s what we asked Johanna Youner, DPM, a New York City podiatrist. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to ease a foot cramp when it’s happening—and a few natural solutions can help to prevent them, too (if you get them regularly). Here is what Dr. Youner told us…
A foot cramp is a sudden contraction of a muscle or muscles. This sudden contraction or spasm causes the pain. Several things can cause your feet to cramp up, including dehydration or a dietary imbalance. Even a bad case of anxiety, which leads to shallow breathing and a reduction in oxygen going to the muscles, can cause cramping.
Why do I get night cramps?
There are multiple reasons why you might be suffering from leg cramps during the night, and some are more serious than others.
The most likely case is that your cramps are linked to nerve issues or general muscle fatigue. However, common causes can include:
- Muscle strain – usually from exercise
- Medication – such as drugs used to lower blood pressure (diuretics) or statins which are used to lower cholesterol
- Dehydration and diet – electrolytes such as magnesium and potassium help our muscles work properly. These minerals are better processed with fluids, thus when the body is dehydrated there can be a lack of them. This can cause the leg muscles to cramp
- Diabetic nerve damage
Pregnancy can also cause night leg cramps, and the risk increases with age. However, night leg cramps should not be confused with Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) – a common condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs
Whilst there is also a link between pregnancy and RLS, it is a separate condition with different symptoms and causes. Most significantly, the pain associated with a cramp is more of a discomfort with RLS.
How can U stop night cramps?
Night cramps are not too serious, and there are a few simple things you can try which could prevent night cramps or help you deal with the pain during a cramp:
- Stretch – any muscle pain can be helped by stretching out the sore spot. Try pointing and flexing your toe during a cramp and regularly stretching your calves otherwise
- Keep hydrated
- Massage the cramped muscle
- Hot bath – this will help soothe the pain present after the cramp
Alternatively, ensure you’re sleeping on a mattress which is providing you with maximum comfort. The TEMPUR Hybrid Collection is made from unique TEMPUR material, providing pressure point relief while you sleep.
If your night cramps last longer than ten minutes, make your leg numb or swollen, or continuously disturb your sleep, consult a GP.
Do you suffer from night-time leg craps? Have you any advice for others? Let us know in the comments section.
What causes muscle cramps?
Despite being a very common condition that affects nearly everybody at sometime in their life, the exact causes of cramps remain something of a mystery (something that makes their prevention easier said than done, as we shall see later). What we do know is that cramping occurs when the normal mechanisms controlling muscle contraction and relaxation become temporarily impaired. These control mechanisms involve the electrical stimulation of muscle fibres (motor unit firing) and subsequent deactivation (relaxation). There are a number of physiological requirements for efficient muscle contraction and relaxation and if any one of these requirements is not met, muscle cramping becomes more likely. These requirements include:
- Adequate hydration and proper and adequate levels of the electrolyte minerals (together, they’re needed for motor unit firing and relaxation);
- Well-trained muscles that are both supple and sufficiently conditioned for the exercise being undertaken (muscle cramps are much more likely to occur in muscles that are unused to vigorous training);
- Adequate rest and recovery; we know that muscles are much more likely to cramp when fatigued.
In addition to the above, genetics are known to play a role (some people are simply more prone to muscle cramping than others all other things being equal) as does age (muscles in the elderly are more prone to cramping than in younger people). Certain diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver are also associated with an increased incidence of muscle cramping, and the risk of cramps can also be increased by injury, where certain muscles may go into spasm in order to ‘brace’ and protect the injured area. However, most authorities agree that ‘true cramps’ – those we normally associate with vigorous exercise, fatigue and dehydration/electrolyte imbalances etc. – are caused by hyperexcitability of the nerves that stimulate the muscles, which also explains why much attention on preventing cramps has been focussed at minimising this excitability through optimum nutrition and conditioning protocols.
Using sports drinks
Dietary basics are essential, but depending on your sporting activity and environment, maintaining optimum hydration, electrolyte balance and muscle glycogen levels may require assistance in the form of purpose designed sports drinks.
- In hot and humid conditions, sweat losses can be considerable – even when the duration and intensity of exercise are fairly modest. In such conditions, the main priority is fluid and electrolyte mineral replacement. Some carbohydrate replacement is also advantageous, but its importance is secondary to fluid/electrolyte considerations;
- In cooler, less humid conditions and where the exercise duration is longer leading to significant reductions in muscle glycogen (ie over an hour to an hour and a half), carbohydrate replacement becomes more of an issue, although fluid and electrolyte replacement is still vital.
For hot and humid conditions, High5’s ‘Isotonic’ fits the bill perfectly. Each 385 calories’ worth of replacement carbohydrate supplies in the region of 1000mgs of sodium and 290mgs of potassium. Meanwhile ‘EnergySource’ is better suited to cooler, higher energy output conditions where carbohydrate replacement becomes more important, with each 385 calories’ worth of carbohydrate supplying 690 and 180mgs of sodium and potassium respectively.
As we’ve already stated, there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee that you won’t be affected by cramping, but by following the fluid/energy replacement guidelines supplied with these products, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of fluid/electrolyte/carbohydrate depletion, which have been linked to increased muscle cramping risk by a number of scientific authorities(6). For example, in long duration activities, researchers have established that a 6% carbohydrateelectrolyte sports drink can help delay the onset of exercise induced muscle cramps, but not prevent them entirely(7). Similarly, a review article on hydration in elite tennis players competing in multiple rounds in hot and humid conditions concluded that fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate replacement was a valuable nutritional strategy(8).
Summary of main points
So what’s the best overall plan for avoiding cramps? Well, there’s no easy answer to that question, but by following the recommendations below, you can certainly minimise your cramp risk:
- Build training intensity gradually. Remember, unaccustomed fatigue plays a major role in muscle cramps;
- Stretch regularly and particularly those muscles used in your more strenuous training sessions;
- Consume a high-carbohydrate diet, drink plenty of fluid and ensure you consume plenty of calcium and magnesium-rich foods;
- Use carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks during longer training sessions and/or during recovery;
- If you’re a long-term sufferer of cramps, consider trying magnesium supplementation;
- Try massage therapy as additional method of relaxing muscles, particularly after tough workouts.
About Andrew Hamilton
Andrew Hamilton BSc Hons MRSC ACSM is the commissioning editor of, and sports nutrition writer for, ‘Peak Performance’, the worldwide leading research publication for athletes and coaches. He is also commissioning editor of and contributor for ‘Sport Injury Bulletin’, providing the very latest sports injury advances into practical advice on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.
Andrew also writes for a number of other publications, including ‘Cycling Weekly’, ‘220 Triathlon’, ‘The British Journal of Cycle Coaching’, ‘Athletics Weekly’, and ‘Workout Magazine’.
How to relieve period cramps? Listen to the message
The only hitch is that Glenda seems to be keeping secrets. The contents of her message often are not immediately clear. If Glenda could speak in plain English, she would want you to know that she’s sending cramps not because she enjoys hurting you, but because she loves you.
In fact, your body uses menstrual cramps to signal one or more of 3 critical imbalances. She’s using pain as her messenger, because she’s desperately trying to get your attention.
So while you’re searching for how to get rid of period cramps, Glenda is asking you to look a little deeper.
Since she can’t speak English, let me help interpret her 3 secret messages.
- First, pain is an inflammatory dynamic. If you have excess pain, chances are you have excess inflammation.
- Second, PMS is frequently a result of hormone imbalance. Often it’s an excess of estrogen or not enough progesterone (or both).
- Third, an excessive “Toxic Body Burden” will often manifest as cramps and PMS, because your liver is in charge of metabolizing toxins and metabolizing hormones. When it’s overloaded on its task of detoxification, it might not be keeping up with its other jobs (like metabolizing hormones). In addition, many toxins we’re exposed to in everyday life are known hormone-disruptors.
How to Relieve Period Cramps – Where to Start?
The key to how to relieve period cramps is to stop it at the source. When you solve the underlying imbalances, your body no longer needs to use pain to send you messages. You can get more information about my recommendations at my site here.
My website delves into the 3 solutions at a strategic level. For many of you, it’s just the right amount of information to implement the 3 solutions on your own.
For some of you, the process might seem like a bit of a struggle on your own, whereas you know interactive guidance and peer accountability increases your opportunity for success.
If for some reason the timing isn’t right just now to begin the deeper changes I’ve discussed here, I’ll close by offering 3 easy baby steps to move you closer to pain relief:
- Reduce sources of inflammation. Move in this direction by reducing processed food, restaurant food, and other convenience foods in your diet. You don’t have to go from zero to sixty. Begin by becoming more mindful of what you’re currently doing, and resolve to make a 10% improvement.
- Balance your hormones. Choosing one of the natural remedies discussed on this blog post is a great place to start experimenting if you haven’t already.
- Reduce Toxic Body Burden. Plastics are a huge source of hormone-disrupting chemicals we bring into our bodies. Switch from drinking out of plastic containers to drinking from glass or stainless steel.
Whether you’re ready for baby steps or big steps, I’d love to hear about your good plans and intentions. What is your personal doable next step?