What Causes Cramping in the Feet and Legs?

image of person holding calf that has cramped.

The dreaded leg and foot cramps – most of us will shudder just thinking about them!

They are a well known nuisance that we would all love to avoid and the good news is that sometimes we can.

In this piece, we will talk about why they happen, what they feel like, what causes them and how to treat them.

Approximately 60% of adults will experience cramping in their feet or calves at least once during their lifetime – so if that is you, make sure you keep reading!

 

What are leg and foot cramps?

In general, cramping occurs when there is an involuntary contraction or tightness within the fibres of a muscle.

The literature says that cramping can occur when the neurons in the spinal cord fire excessively and cause the spontaneous contraction of muscles.

Cramps often seem to come out of nowhere and can happen day or night, however nocturnal cramps are most common. They most commonly occur in the calves, however can also occur in the arches of the feet and the toes.

Cramping can last for a few seconds up to a few minutes.

Cramping is not usually a cause for concern depending on why it is happening, however if you are experiencing regular cramping either during the day or at night, it is best to let your health practitioner know.

 

What does cramping feel like?

Cramping is an unpleasant sensation within the muscle and feels like a sustained, intense contraction that you are unable to control.

The severity of cramping can range from mild to moderate to severe, particularly if it occurs in more than one muscle at once!

Some people feel a sharp pain at the site of the cramp, whilst others may feel a general aching in the area.

 

Causes of Cramps

There are a number of causes linked to cramping in the feet and legs, which can sometimes make it tricky to pinpoint the exact reason as to why they are happening.

Nocturnal or nighttime cramping is thought to occur when your body finally relaxes, due to the fatigue that has built up during the day.

Inactivity

A lack of physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle may lead to cramping due to weakness within the muscle fibres.

In addition to this, poor posture can affect blood flow or lead to nerve compression, potentially resulting in cramping.

Your sleeping position can also be the culprit, particularly if you sleep on your stomach with your ankles flexed.

Overexertion

Overexertion occurs when someone works above or beyond their physical capacities. This can be either through participating in too much sport and activity, or even an increase in simple activities of daily living.

Muscle fibres are designed in a way that allows them to continually contract and relax depending on the demands placed on them. However, if this happens too quickly or too frequent, it may lead to muscle fatigue and ultimately cramping.

Fatigue not only depletes the body of oxygen which is necessary for muscle function, it also allows the build up of waste products such as lactic acid, meaning that the muscle fibres lose strength.

Footwear

Footwear that does not support your feet properly or is poorly fitted, can contribute to fatigued muscles.

Any shoes that place excessive pressure on different parts of the feet or force the feet to work harder than usual can lead to cramping. Examples of this can include high heeled shoes, flexible shoes or thongs.

Dehydration

Dehydration occurs when the body loses more water than it is taking in.

Water is needed for bodily functions to occur and allow the structures of the body to work properly.

Dehydration causes a decrease in your blood volume, meaning that there is less blood getting to the muscles.

If you are dehydrated, you could also be lacking in certain minerals that are essential to proper muscle function such as:

  • Magnesium – regulates muscle and nerve function
  • Calcium – helps muscles to contract
  • Potassium – helps to maintain fluid levels in cells, as well as helping muscles to contract
  • B vitamins such as thiamin and B12 – helps the body convert carbohydrates into glucose, which produces energy
  • Folate – helps to produce healthy red blood cells and break down harmful amino acids

Excessive alcohol

It is well known that alcohol can lead to dehydration. Alcohol consumption reduces the amount of a hormone called vasopressin which allows the body to hold onto its water stores and control how much urine that is produced by your kidneys.

For this reason, excessive alcohol consumption in both binge drinking and alcoholism can also lead to nerve damage and nutritional deficiencies.

Pregnancy

Ahh, another lovely pregnancy symptom.

Unfortunately, the cause of cramping in pregnancy is largely unknown.

The literature shows that possible causes may include increased weight, changes in blood circulation to accommodate the growing baby, dehydration and nutritional deficiencies.

It is most common in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters.

Warmer climates

Areas that are warmer or have a higher humidity can also result in cramping.

This is because you usually sweat more in this weather, leading to fluid and nutrient loss.

This is particularly common in those who exercise in these warmer climates.

Medical conditions

There are a number of health conditions that have been linked with cramping including:

Type 1, type 2 or gestational diabetes

Diabetes is known to affect both blood vessels and nerve fibres, particularly in poorly managed cases. These are thought to contribute to cramping.

Thyroid conditions

Muscle cramping is common amongst those with thyroid conditions. It is thought to be due to the impact that both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism has on the muscle fibres, but isn’t clearly understood.

Kidney disease

Cramping can be a result of fluid and electrolyte imbalances due to impaired kidney function.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)

This involves a narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the body, meaning that there is not enough blood being circulated to those areas. For this reason, people with PAD can experience regular cramping, in particular when they are exercising.

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease can result in dystonia of the muscles, meaning that there is repetitive or continuous spasming or cramping of the muscles. Cramping in the toes or feet are early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Some medications

Contraceptive pill

The changes in hormones throughout the body are thought to contribute to cramping. If you are experiencing severe leg cramps after beginning the contraceptive pill, consult your doctor immediately.

Statins

Statins are used to treat high cholesterol, however a well documented side effect is ‘statin-induced muscle pain’. It is thought that statins can cause too much calcium to leak into the muscle fibres, resulting in cramping.

Diuretics

Diuretics are used to treat people who have cardiac issues such as those with high blood pressure, as they tend to store excessive fluid within their circulatory system. Diuretics work to deplete the body of excess fluid, however this can sometimes lead to cramping due to dehydration.

Asthma medications

Some asthma medications can impact on the levels of electrolytes within the body, as well as causing the neurons within the muscles to fire more frequently than is needed.

 

Treatment for Cramps

There are a number of treatment options available to manage foot and leg cramping.

The first step is to try to understand why you are experiencing cramping by taking a thorough medical history.

Unfortunately with cramps, you essentially need to ‘ride it out’ to a degree’. When you feel a cramp beginning, standing and stretching the muscle will help to release the tension.

There are a number of ways that you can reduce your risk of cramping including:

Regular exercise

This will help to keep your muscles healthy and strong.

If you wish to increase your exercise, it is important to follow the 10% rule, where you do not increase your exercise by more than 10% from week to week.

This will also help to reduce fatigue and overexertion within the muscles.

Stretching

Regular stretching of tight muscles can help to improve the elasticity of the muscle fibres, ultimately reducing tension.

Nutrition

Having a balanced diet that includes nutrient rich foods will help to keep your vitamin and mineral levels at their appropriate levels to avoid deficiencies. Have a chat to your GP or nutritionist/dietician to receive advice about the right diet for you.

Fluid intake

Ensure that you are drinking enough fluids throughout the day to avoid dehydration. Adults should aim to have at least 8-10 glasses of water per day.

Proper shoes

Wearing appropriate shoes that support your feet properly will enable your feet to function properly, without having to overwork. Reduce your time spent in slip on shoes like sandals or thongs.

Lower alcohol

The Australian Alcohol Guidelines state that you should drink no more than 10 standard drinks in 1 week, or 4 standard drinks on any 1 day. Pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether.

Take prenatals before and during pregnancy

Prenatals contain essential nutrients that are vital for the health of both the mother and baby. This includes iron, B vitamins and folate.

 

Are you getting cramps in your feet or legs?

If you are suffering from cramping in the legs and feet, give us a call on 03 9432 2689 or book online to chat to one of our podiatrists. We may be able to help you figure out why it is happening and how to reduce your risk.

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