6 reasons why you experience foot cramps

Maybe you're enjoying some time out in the sun, playing footie with a few friends when you feel as though you've been shot.

Muscle and Joint

Owen Wiseman

13 August 2019

What are some of the reasons for a foot cramp?

Cramps can occur due to warm temperatures as well, and if you can feel the cramp coming, some gentle stretching can often alleviate the associated pain and muscle tension.

When the temperatures rise, the body begins to shed fluids which contain nutrients and electrolytes. When the sweat evaporates, these are lost to the atmosphere causing the tissues to become dehydrated and subsequently spasm.

Heat cramps could be an early sign of an impending heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke. When the amount of sodium in the body dips below 135mmol/L, you enter a state of hyponatremia, symptoms of which include changes in consciousness, potentially leading to coma and even death in severe cases where levels fall below 120mmol/L.

Another important mineral and electrolyte is potassium, which works closely with sodium to ensure the appropriate balance of electrolytes in the fluids of the body and is featured prominently in the cardiac muscle cells. A deficiency, or less than 3.6mmol/L, may appear as abnormal heart rhythms or severe muscle weakness.

Another reason is quite benign as you've most likely experienced the pins and needles sensation that accompanies sitting on a body part for too long. When the nerves supplying the muscles of the feet are compressed, their ability to transmit signals may become compromised. This could result in the involuntary muscle spasms experienced as a cramp as the signals from higher parts of the brain hierarchy meant to quiet the muscle fail to do their job.

Would exercise play any role?

Going hand in hand with warm temperatures and an electrolyte imbalance is overexertion. The human body is an impressive thing, able to adapt and acclimatize to a variety of different situations. In some situations, the limits of the body are tested as individuals try to push themselves harder.

This could lead to the electrolyte imbalance as discussed above, and generate heat which further exacerbates the cramp. While everyone is unique in their response to various factors of life, mild or moderate exercise under 30 minutes duration is unlikely to cause such excess fluid loss. A multi-centre study determined that 74% of cramps took place in areas of elevated temperatures or athletes.

I'm taking various medications, and now I'm wondering whether any of them could contribute to the cramps I'm experiencing?

Absolutely. Diuretics are a class of medications that encourage movement of fluid out of the body, examples of which are hydrochlorothiazide and furosemide. These could be considered if you suffer from swollen tissues (edema) or conditions such as hypertension. If too much fluid is moved out, the individual can experience dehydration and subsequent muscle spasms.

The statin family of medications, responsible for reducing cholesterol, have been implicated in muscle aches and cramps. A gene known as atrogin-1 is activated when muscle tissue begins to break down. Animal studies have demonstrated that these levels are higher in animals administered lovastatin. Human studies are needed to confirm whether this mechanism of action is present in our species as well.

What happens if my muscle cramps last longer than a few minutes?

It's important to differentiate a muscle cramp from another condition known as dystonia, from the Greek dys- or abnormal, and -tonia, meaning tone. Dystonias are involuntary muscle contractions, much like cramps, but they are also sustained and can alter posture or cause a tremor-like appearance. Areas of the brain that play a role in motion seem to be hyperactive in those affected by dystonias. The condition can affect the muscles of the eye, neck, vocal cords, and jaw amongst others.

To summarize, the reasons worth exploring for your foot cramp include:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Overexertion
  • Hot temperatures
  • Medications
  • Nerve compression

It's always important to stretch before engaging in physical activity to prime the muscle groups and slowly warm the tissues up. It is far easier for things to become damaged when the force acting on them is taken from 0 to 100 in a short period of time. Certain sports vehicles are built for this type of acceleration, but many entry level cars would break if the components tried to accelerate so quickly. There are different muscle fibres in the body including slow-twitch and fast-twitch, the latter of which are meant to withstand rapid activation.

How can I avoid muscle cramps?

When the cramps do occur, gentle stretching is typically the most appropriate acute treatment in addition to replenishing your electrolytes. While certain sports drinks may be beneficial, they are often high in sugar and additives. Products like Molkosan, a lactofermented whey concentrate, is rich in potassium and can help alleviate symptoms of hypokalemia. The added benefits are the confidence in a product that is gluten-, lactose-, and sugar-free. For those who would prefer their Molkosan with a flavor, there is a Berry version flavoured with pomegranate and aronia berries that is also gluten-, lactose-, and sugar-free.

However, the most preferable approach would be knowing ways to avoid them. As you have no doubt heard time and time again, it is critical to stay hydrated by listening to your body and drinking water when you're thirsty. Avoid overexerting yourself and performing strenuous physical activity in a hot or humid environment where your ability to thermoregulate is compromised. Finally, avoid sitting on parts of the body for too long, or if you need to sit for an extended period of time, find ways to introduce small motions.

If you don't think any of these reasons are responsible for your muscle cramps, it may be worth opening a discussion with your primary care provider to determine the cause. They have the ability to run labs that will assess your nutrient status and the presence of metabolites that could be associated with the cramping sensation.