Are foot cramps cramping your style? A reader asked for help in figuring out the mystery behind her own foot cramps. To answer this question, we turned to a board-certified physician for information and advice.
What's the deal with foot cramps? I never got them when I was younger, but lately, I've been getting them frequently — especially when I'm lying in bed or trying to point my toes in Pilates class. My foot will sort of seize up and cramp into a weird position, and no massaging seems to make it go away. It seems to happen more on days when I wear heels, but not always. Do you have any idea what causes foot cramps and how I can prevent them?
— Cramped Style
As a fellow sufferer of muscle and foot cramps, I am so glad you asked this question. Muscle cramps (including the foot) are extremely common; in fact, according to MedicineNet.com, it is estimated that 95 percent of people experience a muscle cramp at some time in their life!
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons defines a muscle cramp as an involuntary and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. Cramps can affect any muscle under voluntary control (skeletal muscle). Cramps can involve part or all of a muscle, or several muscles in a group. Cramps of the extremities, especially the legs and feet, and most particularly the calf, are extremely common. Other common areas for muscle cramps include: back and front of the thigh, hands, arms, abdomen, and rib cage muscles.
So, who gets cramps? Like I said earlier, statistics show that just about everyone will get some type of muscle cramp during their lifetime. They can come at any time too, with exercise or activity, or even when at rest or during sleep. Sometimes all it takes is the slightest movement that shortens a muscle to trigger a cramp (in your case, pointing your toes in Pilates shortens the muscles of the arch of your foot, which seems to trigger the cramps). According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, some people are predisposed to muscle cramps and get them regularly with any physical exertion. Muscle cramps are very common among endurance athletes who perform strenuous physical activity. Those at greatest risk are people over age 65, those who are ill, overweight, overexert during work or exercise, or take certain medications.
Common causes of muscle cramps include: overuse of a muscle, dehydration, depletion of salt and minerals (electrolytes such as magnesium, potassium and calcium), muscle strain/injury, or simply holding a position for a prolonged period of time. Another type of common muscle cramp is a nocturnal or rest cramp, which happens in your calf or toe muscles when you are resting or sleeping. However, the exact cause of muscle cramps remains unknown, although some researchers believe inadequate stretching and muscle fatigue leads to abnormalities in mechanisms that control muscle contraction.
In terms of treatment for muscle and foot cramps, you can generally treat muscle cramps with self-care measures, and most cramps can be stopped if the muscle can be stretched. For many cramps of the feet and legs, this stretching can be done by simply standing up and walking around. Typically, you want to try and gently stretch the muscle away from the cramping position and hold it there until the cramp goes away. Gently massaging the muscle will often help it to relax, as will applying warmth from a heating pad or hot/warm soak. If the muscle cramp is associated with fluid loss, as usually is the case with physical activity, fluid and electrolyte replacement is essential. There are a few steps you can take to prevent muscle cramps. Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of liquids every day and during physical activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals and continue hydration after you're finished. Also, stretch your muscles before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you have night cramps, stretch the affected muscles before bedtime.
Although most muscle cramps are benign, sometimes they can be an indication of a more serious medical condition. You should see your physician or medical health professional if the cramps are severe in nature, happen frequently, are persistent, fail to respond to simple treatments, or are not related to obvious causes like exercise or injury. You could have problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones, or nutrition. However, it is uncommon for muscle cramps to occur as the result of a medical condition without other obvious signs that the medical condition is present.
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