Cramps are sudden and excruciatingly painful sensations caused by contraction or over shortening of the muscles. Skeletal muscle contractions commonly occur in calves, thighs and the arches of the feet. Many factors are responsible behind the occurrence of cramps - hyperflexion, hypoxia, drastic changes in atmospheric temperature over a short period of time, dehydration, low blood sodium/calcium/potassium leading to electrolyte disturbance in the body, etc. Cramps are mostly attributed to muscle fatigue and sodium imbalance.
Muscle cramps may also be indicative of various other serious conditions such as natal complications, kidney or thyroid disorders, hypomagnesemia, restless leg syndrome, varicose veins and multiple sclerosis. Cramps cause severe discomfort and may attack the calves, thighs and foot arches suddenly, without any previous sign! These types of skeletal muscle cramps may occur during periods of activity as well as during periods of rest, such as during sleep. Let us take a detailed look at the causes of foot and leg cramps.
Leg and Foot Cramp Causes
Hyperactivity of Nerve-Muscle Reflex Arc
Sometimes, the Central Nervous System (CNS) experiences fatigue during spells of hyperactivity. This causes some of the normal inhibitory activities of the central nervous system's reflexes to be lost. These are spinal reflexes and they employ two receptors - the Golgi tendons and muscle spindles. Due to CNS fatigue, there occurs overuse of the nervous system's feedback communication with muscles, causing the inhibition of the Golgi tendon and hyperactivity of muscle spindles, leading to sustained activation of the muscles. More than often, this is what causes leg and foot cramps. This mechanism is often triggered by other leg and foot cramp causes such as prolonged inactivity and bad posture, which predispose the nerve-muscle reflexes to malfunction.
Calcium and Magnesium Deficiency
If you frequently experience nighttime cramps in the feet and calves, your body is probably low on calcium and magnesium! Low levels of blood calcium and magnesium trigger excitability of nerve endings and muscles and these get stimulated simultaneously. This kind of mineral deficiency is common to pregnant women and is often cured with dietary supplements. Calcium and magnesium deficiency are the most common causes of leg and foot cramps at night.
Potassium and Sodium Deficiency
Low levels of potassium in the body is responsible for muscle weakness, making you susceptible to foot and leg cramps. Also, low sodium level among the foremost causes of leg cramps while sleeping as low salt levels irritate the nerve endings.
Medications and Stimulants
Diuretic medications and drugs such as Furosemide, Acetazolamide, Methazolamide, Digitalis and Thiazides often cause the body to lose calcium and potassium and inhibit the absorption of sodium by the body, making way for severe cramps. Stimulants such as Caffeine is also what causes leg cramps. Withdrawal from alcohol and other addictive substances is also among causes of leg cramps.
Excessive loss of fluid from the body by way of perspiration, urination, vomiting, etc., can cause cramps in skeletal muscles. This is the reason why athletes often complain of foot and leg cramps as their hyperactivity causes their bodies to lose body fluids in the form of perspiration. Dehydration also leads to loss of sodium from the body, causing irritation to the nerve endings. Dehydration is one of the commonest causes of muscular cramps. Body fluid shifts are also often responsible for muscular cramps.
Overexertion and Structural Maladjustment
Overexertion of muscles often lead to such cramps, besides bad postures and structural disorders such as flat feet. Standing on hard surfaces for a very long time, sitting with legs inappropriately folded or positioned are common causes of leg and foot cramps. A word of caution to the ladies - if you've recently changed the height of your heels or have lately switched from flats to heels, you might experience calf and foot arch cramps!
Other Possible Causes
Cramps can occur as side effects of various other health conditions and medical procedures such as kidney dialysis, cirrhosis of the liver, later stages of pregnancy, certain disorders of peripheral nerves, peripheral vasoconstriction of the legs and feet, lead poisoning, thyroid disorders, diabetes, etc.
How to Prevent and Treat Cramps In Legs and Feet?
Prevention is always, and by far, better than cure. Start with keeping your body hydrated by drinking lots of water and fluids - lots of fluid, here, excludes tea, coffee and caffeinated beverages as they are diuretics and make your body lose lots of fluids. Consume calcium, potassium and magnesium rich foods such as milk, bananas, cantaloupe, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, etc. and take calcium supplements if necessary. Treatment of leg cramps include drinking Tonic Water at the time the cramps hit. Slowly rubbing and massaging the affected muscle eases the tightness and pain and is the best way to relieve leg cramps.
In severe cases, wrapping a towel soaked in warm water around the calf, thigh or foot (depending upon where the cramp is) of applying ice packs to the affected areas are known to help. I, myself, often suffer from nocturnal leg cramps in the calves and my personal remedy goes like this:-
- Hold the ankle joint with one hand very tightly between your thumb and middle finger.
- Curve the thumb and middle finger of the other hand to form a cup and hold the cramped, stiff muscle within this cup, running the hand up and down the calf in hard, probing strokes, in this fashion.
This works for me every time! In very severe cases, rubbing pain relieving creams on to the stiffened muscle helps. In recent times, a shot of Botox is known to work for very severe cramps and cases of dystonic muscular disorders that are confined to a limited group of muscles.
As we discerned from the above information, the most common causes of leg cramps are nutrition and lifestyle related. Inclusion of nutritious, mineral rich food in our daily diets, maintaining proper postures, wearing comfortable footwear that gives good support to the feet, drinking lots of fluids, etc. are some of the few easy ways we can avoid these nasty, painful bouts. Take care of yourself and say good-bye to pain!