Want to know what causes muscle cramps in the legs at night? You’re not alone. Regular cramp is a problem that affects millions of people in the US, and many more worldwide. Waking up in the middle of the night because of a sudden twinge disturbs sleep and leaves you feeling irritated…not to mention that it hurts.
Unfortunately, cramping feet and legs are a problem that has many causes. It could be any one of them that’s affecting you or a combination. The first part of this guide is dedicated to the causes of foot cramps while sleeping. Altogether, we have covered nine different factors that could be the cause of your cramp. Use this part of our guide to identifying what you can change to relieve your cramp fast.
Afterward, we move on to a section on how to prevent foot cramps while sleeping. Fortunately, there are just as many ways to avoid cramps as there are causes. So, no matter what’s keeping you awake at night, there is going to be something you can do about it.
Why Do I Get Cramp While Sleeping?
Table of Contents:
- 1 Why Do I Get Cramp While Sleeping?
- 2 How Do You Prevent Cramps In Your Feet?
- 3 Foot Cramp Home Remedies
- 4 How to Get Rid of My Foot Cramps
No matter where or when you experience cramping, the effect is the same. Your muscles contract without warning, which can be incredibly painful. If you’re lucky, the effect lasts for a few seconds. If you’re not so fortunate, it can last ten minutes or more in the worst cases.
It depends on which kind of cramp you have. You might have either idiopathic leg cramps or secondary leg cramps. Put simply, ‘idiopathic’ means that doctors can’t tell what causes it. By contrast, secondary leg cramps are caused by another identifiable condition.
So, what causes nocturnal cramp in feet and legs? Scientists can’t agree exactly what causes cramps, although anecdotal evidence has something to say on the matter. Below are our most common cramp causes. Go through our list one by one and see which one most likely causes yours.
One of the most common causes of cramp is muscle overuse. This cause is relative: muscle overuse takes much more effort for an athlete than somebody who’s unfit. If you ever watch sports, you probably notice that after an hour or two, the athletes start to tire. Some start stretching their feet and legs and look like they’re in pain. That’s cramp from muscle overuse. This can recur later on in the day or at night.
If you’re not an athlete, it takes less to cause cramps. If you jog, go to the gym, or cycle then this might be why you’re getting cramps. If you notice yourself ‘getting a stitch’ while running, this might be a sign that muscle overuse is affecting you. However, muscle overuse never occurs on its own. It’s related to one of the other causes below.
Dehydration and muscle overuse go hand-in-hand. To operate correctly, the muscles need specific nutrients and chemicals. One of these is water. The more water you lose, the more likely you are to get a cramp. There are two mechanisms at play here. Nerves firing incorrectly after dehydration causes the muscles to do unexpected things like go slack or cramp up.
Second, dehydration alters the balance of salts, minerals, and water in the muscles. That’s why athletes drink isotonic drinks, which restore that balance. So if you’re pushing yourself hard, or exercising in warm weather, you’ll get cramp even quicker than normal. Try keeping cooler when you exercise to see if it has an effect.
Lack of Minerals
As we touched on above, a lack of minerals can make dehydration more likely to cause cramp. However, it’s a problem in its own right. If you’re not getting enough of any of the following minerals, you’re at risk of cramp:
If you didn’t know, these are the ‘electrolytes’ you’ll have heard so much about. Not having enough of these minerals increases the excitability of your nerve endings. The usual suspect? A diet that lacks variety and nutritional value. But lack of minerals can be exacerbated by sweating profusely, diarrhea or vomiting.
Lack of Blood Supply
A lack of blood getting to your legs can result in cramps, too. This is because the legs and feet aren’t getting enough oxygen, and because the feet are the part of the body furthest away from the heart, this is a significant cause for cramps in the feet while sleeping. There are many reasons why your feet might not be getting enough circulation:
- Heart disease (i.e., atherosclerosis)
- Low blood pressure
- A blood clot somewhere in the body
- Over-exercise, when the body cannot replenish the muscle’s oxygen supply quickly enough
- Conditions that cause poor circulation, e.g., diabetes
Posture during the day and sleeping position during the night are likely culprits. If you sleep on your side, the weight of one leg on top of the other may cut off some circulation. Sleeping on your back, with your legs level with or higher than your shoulders also causes poor circulation.
Since your muscles are controlled by your nerves, nervous system problems typically cause cramp. If your nerves aren’t working optimally, they can cause your muscles to go slack or tighten involuntarily. Compression at any point in the nervous system can prevent the nerve and your brain from communicating correctly.
So, what is nerve compression? It’s where the nerves that run through the spine are pinched or pressed more than usual. Ideally, this won’t happen. If you’re having trouble picturing why this might be a problem, imagine standing on a hose or pinching it. The water can’t travel from the tap to the end of the hose in the same way that information can’t travel from your brain to your nerves. This can cause them to do unexpected things like jitter, twitch, or cramp.
Nervous system disorders make this more likely. Having an incorrect spinal posture can also compress the nerves.
Sprains and Injuries
If you have sprained or otherwise injured your leg/foot, this can cause cramp too. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why, but if you roll your ankle or even break your leg, you become more susceptible to cramp.
Underlying medical conditions can effectively cause cramp, through many different mechanisms. Anything that causes dehydration, a lack of minerals, or nerve compression could make them worse.
- Diarrhea/gut problems like Crohn’s disease, through which you lose water and minerals through not properly digesting food
- One of the side effects of diabetes is that you produce more urine. The body tries to get rid of excess glucose through urine, which leaves you dehydrated.
- Alcoholism can cause dehydration since alcohol is a diuretic.
- Nervous system problems such as MS (multiple sclerosis)
Particular medications can either cause cramps or make cramps worse. Any medication that’s a diuretic (i.e., encourages you to pass water) depletes the body of minerals, which causes cramp.
Other medications such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, statins, and steroids may also list cramps as a potential side effect. Check your medication or talk with your pharmacist for more information.
Sometimes cramps just happen. You could be doing everything to keep hydrated and avoid a lack of nutrients. But no matter what you do, your cramps keep coming back. Studies show that some people are more susceptible to cramping than others. This, plus a mixture of factors, may mean that your cramps have no clear cause.
But even if you’re not sure of the cause of your cramp, that doesn’t mean you can’t prevent it. There are plenty of options still open to you.
How Do You Prevent Cramps In Your Feet?
Preventing cramps is all about being aware of the various causes and correcting them. Even if you’re not sure exactly what the cause of your cramp is, you can still have great success in preventing them if you follow the tips below.
If You Exercise
If you are an athlete or love to keep fit, there are plenty of techniques to prevent cramp.
- Cramps occur at the end of very intense workouts. Plan your exercise so that you only gradually improve upon previous efforts.
- Another critical factor in cramps is heat. Exercising in the early morning or late evening, when temperatures are cooler, could help.
- Try to figure out how much calcium, magnesium, and sodium is in your diet. You may not be getting enough. If not, correct that with a more varied diet including vegetables and lean protein.
- Alternatively, drink isotonic drinks while you exercise. These drinks contain the correct balance of salts and fluid that your body needs.
- Muscle fatigue after a long workout can be prevented by having enough glycogen in your system. Glycogen is a carbohydrate, so don’t avoid eating carbs before workouts.
- Drink regularly during exercise.
Following these steps should be enough to treat your cramp if the cause is over-exercise. If you do exercise a lot, but the cause is to do with nerve problems or medication, these five steps may not help.
If You Don’t Exercise
If you don’t exercise at all, the problem may be poor health. You have many options to correct your cramp if you’re not currently active.
This one’s obvious: start exercising. But don’t go in ‘all guns blazing.’ Start with moderate activity, for the time being, to acclimate your body to become more active. Exercises that increase your circulation, i.e., cardio exercises, are best to prevent cramp. Begin your routine with extra stretches.
Seek other ways to improve your circulation. Some of your options include:
- Enjoy a Swedish massage
- Quit smoking
- Lower your cholesterol
- Have a warm bath or sit in a sauna
Not exercising is a chief cause of poor circulation. Through exercise, you can strengthen your heart. Doing other things like quitting smoking will give you an easier time, too.
If You Don’t Eat Well
Since a poor diet is yet another cause of a lack of minerals, correcting this can also help. There’s also the fact that being overweight exacerbates cramp by decreasing your circulation. So, follow these tips if you don’t have a healthy diet, or if you’re overweight.
- Poor diets often include plenty of unhealthy fluids: soda and coffee, for example. Springwater is rich in minerals and better for you.
- Similarly, poor diets include plenty of ‘empty calories’. Chips, processed sugar, and snacks contain a few of the minerals you need. Eat more fruit and vegetables to make sure you don’t lack magnesium, calcium, and sodium.
- If you are overweight, try to lose some weight. Your cramps might not be a direct result of your weight, but it can only help.
Starting a new diet is tough. But counteracting your cramp might be the kickstart you need.
Foot Cramp Home Remedies
So, how do you treat cramps in your feet? Aside from dietary and lifestyle changes, there are many home remedies. These may or may not work for you, and some are more effective than others. Ultimately, it’s up to you which you choose. Let’s take a look at a few.
Stretch The Muscle (If Possible)
The first and most obvious foot cramp remedy is to try and loosen the muscle. This usually is easier said than done. That being said, if you can stretch your muscle out just a little bit, that could be the difference between a ten-second cramp and a two-minute cramp.
The technique is easy enough to learn. Don’t try and use your hands- you would be straining the rest of your body. Instead, put your weight on the toes of the affected foot. If possible, push down, like you’re standing on a foot pump. Repeat the action for as long as you can. This is usually enough to loosen the muscle and get rid of your cramp quicker.
Massage the Area
If your cramp just doesn’t go away, try massage. A gentle, relaxing massage won’t do. Try to push your thumbs deep into the muscle and move them around in circles. This does two things: first, it directly loosens the tightness of the muscle. But it also encourages microscopic blood flow in the muscle, which might be exactly what you need if your cramps are the result of poor circulation.
Apply Heat or Cold
You may also benefit from applying something warm or cold to the area. This directly helps with pain, by giving the nerves in your foot something else to think about. It’s the same reason why rubbing an area helps if you hurt it: your nerves were busy telling your brain about the pain, but now there’s something else they’ve got to tell the brain, too. This makes the pain less ‘obvious.’
Heat works especially well. With heat, not only are you reducing the pain, but you’re also helping the muscle to relax. Warmth loosens muscles, which is exactly what you want. A warm towel or a plug-in heat pad could be your answer. Plug-in heat pads are especially useful since it would always be ready to use. But if you don’t have something warm quickly to hand, a cold compress can also help.
Epsom Salt & Bathing
Bathing is a great way to prevent cramps. But even better is to bathe with Epsom salts. Bathing on its own is a good idea, especially before bed. If you typically get foot cramps at night, then relaxing your muscles with a good long soak before bed might be just what you need.
However: Epsom salts make the experience much more useful for any cramp sufferer. Why? It’s because Epsom salts contain minerals galore. As we mentioned above, a shortage of potassium, calcium, magnesium, or sodium might be to blame for your cramps. You can find Epsom salts with all of these minerals in, and more.
If you bathe with Epsom salts, your body absorbs these minerals directly through the skin. While bathing, massage your foot to encourage the muscle to loosen. This also aids in the absorption of the minerals above. This might be enough to stop your cramps all on its own.
Clove oil is a natural medicine that can help you with all sorts of health issues. You can either eat it with your food or apply it directly to the area. You don’t commonly see clove oil in stores. If you’ve ever seen or used it before, you may have bought it at a pharmacy. That’s because clove oil is commonly used to relieve dental pain.
That being said, it’s not just good for pain. Clove oil contains the minerals you need to counteract cramp: calcium, potassium, and sodium. Whether you ingest it or apply it directly to the area, your body benefits by absorbing these minerals. It then sends them to the muscles. Not only that, but clove oil is anti-inflammatory, which reduces swelling after a cramp.
If you’d like to use clove oil, you can’t simply pour it out of the bottle onto your foot. Here’s how it works.
- Bear in mind that it’s a highly concentrated, potent oil. You have to dilute it with something called a ‘carrier oil’ first. This is any other oil that you’re comfortable using in food or on your skin, e.g., olive oil.
- Once you dilute your oil, do a patch test. Pick an ‘unimportant’ part of the skin, e.g., the inside of your forearm. Apply a very small amount and wait at least a day to see how your skin reacts. This is to make sure that you aren’t allergic, which you may be.
- When you’re ready, take a small amount of diluted oil and massage it into the area. Do this until most of the oil is absorbed. Repeat as many times as you like.
Vitamin B Complex (& Vitamin D)
According to a study, taking a vitamin B complex can decrease the cramps that you experience at night. Taking your daily allowance of B12, B6, and B1 can either significantly improve your cramps or get rid of them altogether. 30% of patients in a double-blind study reported that B complex pills left them without cramps, and 57% reported significant improvement.
Vitamin D can also help. If you don’t get enough vitamin D, or you have the clinical condition of vitamin D deficiency, then you can’t absorb calcium. As we covered above, calcium is one of the many things your muscles and nerves need to function correctly. So a multivitamin that includes both B complex and D is your best option.
Alternatively, there are plenty of foods that contain vitamins B and D. You can get B12 from eggs, meat, and dairy. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may not be able to get enough B12 in your diet and should stick to supplements. Your body naturally produces vitamin D from sunshine.
How to Get Rid of My Foot Cramps
Cramps can be a nightmare. But with a little bit of help, you can treat them. All you have to do is follow these three simple steps:
- Identify what’s causing your cramps. As we pointed out above, this could be anything from poor circulation to a lack of exercise.
- Health and lifestyle changes could be in order. If you need to exercise more, exercise more; if you need to eat a better diet, this could also help.
- Pick just one or two home remedies. Epsom salts are a great solution, no matter the problem, as is clove oil.
And with that, your cramps should be gone.