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Stop Leg Muscle Cramps and Foot Cramps, Tips and Home Remedies

Updated on April 26, 2016
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Dr. John uses skills in Biochemistry, Physiology (PhD) to review topics on mental health, depression, sleep, stress, setting positive goals

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Cramps are very common in team sports such as basketball and soccer, usually towards the end of the game. These cramps are generally caused by electrolyte imbalance (salt deficiency) through excessive moisture loss via sweating. Also muscles that get strained or streched when they are tired or overloaded tend to cramp violently.

Many people, especially older ones, get cramps in their legs or toes at night, or when people are resting. These cramps can be very painful and occur frequently, causing disrupted sleep and discomfort.

The cause of these nocturnal cramps is unknown, but they appear to be triggered by movements that shorten or contract the muscle or by simply placing the legs and toes in certain positions, such as pointing the toes in the feet.

This article reviews the research on activity related, and night and nocturnal cramps in the legs and toes.

It provides tips and home remedies for the relief and prevention of cramps in legs and toes.

What Causes Cramps?

Cramps during teams games mostly occurs in:

  • the calf muscle, located at the back of the lower leg,
  • the quadriceps muscle located down front of the legs,
  • or the hamstring muscles at the back, top of the thigh.

One commonly stated reason for muscle cramps, is that the loss of salt through sweating and dehydration leads to electrolyte imbalance in the muscle cells, causing them to spasm and contract, and stay contracting (causing a spasm). The pain can be excruciating and the contacting and spasming muscle may 'pull' and cause lasting damage and pain. The only relief is to forcibly stretch the muscle out. On the soccer fields, player with cramp other get their teammates to stretch the muscles. After a cramp players are often given a 'salt' tablet and sports drink to replace some of the lost salt of fluid.

However, research has shown that there are multiple causes for cramp related to muscle tiredness. Salt deficiency is only an explanation for some of the cramps. A research study on ultra-marathon competitors found no significant differences in the salt levels between athletes experienced cramps, and those who did not.

An alternative reason is that is that tired and fatigued muscles may lose their contact with the brain through stress. The body may over-compensate by sending more and more contraction signals to the muscle that is failing to respond properly. Eventually the torrent of 'contract' signals may overwhelm the muscles causing spasms and cramps.

The various kinds of cramps are outlined below:

Injury - Frequent muscle spasms and cramps may occur as a shielding response to an injury. When this occurs, the spasm and cramping reduce movement, and this acts to stabilize the area of the injury. It is a compensation response. Injuries to the muscle themselves may cause the muscle spasms.

Awkward Positions and Straining - Cramps can occur when sitting or lying in an awkward position that strains the muscles and triggers cramps. Most people have had this happen to them when repairing the car or straining to change a light fitting. Any strenuous physical activities doing unfamiliar things can cause cramps.

Strong Vigorous Activity - Cramps are often triggered by vigorous use of muscles, which become fatigued. Sometimes the cramping does not occur immediately, but one or two hours later.

Excess Load Muscle Cramping - This occurs when the effort required by a group of muscles exceeds their capacity for the load. The stressed muscles cramp when they can no longer resist the load placed on them.

Electrolyte Imbalance and Dehydration Muscle Cramping - This type of cramping is caused by dehydration, electrolyte imbalance or often both. Hot days and strenuous activity can trigger dehydration-based cramping. Though mostly attributed to salt and sodium, studies have shown that potassium also plays a role. It is the ration of sodium to potassium that is important, and changes in the ratio in the blood or muscles can trigger cramp. Avoiding electrolyte imbalance and dehydration can be avoided by keeping the fluid levels up and drinking a good quality sports drink.

Resting, Nocturnal and Sleep Cramps - Night cramps are surprisingly common, especially in older adults. The exact cause of night cramps is unknown. Often these cramps are triggered by movements that shortens the muscle or holding the legs or toes in particular positions. Nocturnal and cramps when resting can often be prevented by doing stretching exercises before going to bed. Repeating the stretching every time people get up at night can also help prevent cramps. Getting adequate calcium and magnesium in the diet or via supplements can also help. Vitamin E supplements also appears to help many people.

Medications - Various medicines and drugs can cause cramps, via diuretic effects and dehydration and other causes. Doctors will normally warning patients of cramping as a side effect of certain prescribed drugs.

Treatment for Cramps

Most muscle cramps in the legs, especially the calf muscles, can be relieved by stretching the muscle out for a minute or so. Following-up with gentle massaging often helps to relax the muscle. Applying a heating pad or taking a hot bath to warm the muscles can also help. Ice treatments are really for strained and pulled muscles to reduce inflammation. If the cramping is related to fluid or sodium/potassium loss through sweating, then fluid and electrolyte replacement using sports drinks is recommended.

Preventing Sports Cramps

Warm-up, Stretching and Cool-Down - Adequate stretching and proper warm up and warm down exercises can relax tired muscles and help prevent cramps when exercising and during sporting events.

Remain Well-Hydrated - Keeping well hydrated before, during, and after various activities is also very important, especially in hot weather.

Prevention of Nocturnal Cramps

Talk with your doctor to try to find the specific cause. If none can be found, the following general prevention tips should be applied:

  • Stretch the calf muscles and toe muscles at least four times a day, including just before going to bed.
  • To stretch the calf muscles - Face a wall and lean on your hands positioned against the wall. Take one step back while keeping your knees locked. Gently push your heels down flat onto the floor until you feel a pull in your calve muscles. Step further back if required. Hold the position, stretching the calves for 10-20 seconds. Repeat three or four times for both legs.
  • Exercise the feet and legs regularly, by walking, including walking on your toes and raising the heels.
  • Stay well hydrated when exercising.
  • Remember that tea, coffee and alcoholic drinks can dehydrate you body
  • Drink lots of liquids and make sure you are getting enough magnesium, calcium and potassium.
  • Eat lots of foods rich in potassium such as grapefruit, oranges, cantaloupe, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes and bananas.
  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes, to avoid straining your legs and feet.
  • Sleep with the toes pointed up, not downwards.


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  • MelChi profile image

    Melanie Chisnall 4 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

    I hate getting leg's so painful, and I haven't had one in a few years thankfully. I'm going to start stretching them throughout the day as you've mentioned as a precaution. Good tips here, thanks!