Although stretching is often meant to relax and soothe the muscles, it still requires the muscles to exert some effort to hold the stretch. Occasionally, the muscles become stuck in this contracted position, resulting in a painful muscle cramp. Nighttime foot cramps can be caused by a variety of conditions, from simple causes to serious concerns.
Simple causes of muscle cramps include dehydration, overuse, fatigue, muscle strain or simply holding the foot in the same position for a prolonged period of time. If the muscle cramp is caused by fatigue or a specific stretch, the only possible way to prevent the cramp is to avoid the activity altogether. However, you can avoid muscle cramps caused by dehydration simply by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. If your cramps are caused by muscle strain or overuse, rest the foot for a few days.
Although nighttime foot cramps can typically be traced to a simple cause, there are also a variety of serious conditions that can cause painful cramping. For example, compression of a nerve in the spine or leg can easily result in cramping, pain or tingling in the foot. Additionally, poor circulation or blocked blood flow to the feet often results in muscle cramps. When an adequate supply of blood cannot reach the foot, cramps occur when the tissues become deprived of oxygen. Typically, muscle cramps caused by poor blood flow are relieved soon after you stop exercising. To avoid further injury, consult your physician if you believe your nighttime foot cramps are caused by nerve compression or circulation problems.
A variety of minerals are responsible for proper muscle contraction and relaxation. When these minerals drop below normal levels, it may be difficult for the muscles to relax. Unfortunately, nutritional deficiencies are difficult to diagnose without a blood test, and therefore may go untreated for long periods of time. Deficiencies of potassium, magnesium and calcium can all lead to leg or foot cramps. Sodium is another electrolyte that has a significant effect on muscle contraction. In fact, marathon runners typically develop muscle cramps as a result of sodium deficiency. Adults should aim for 1.2 to 1.5 g of sodium, 4.7 g of potassium, 310 to 420 mg of potassium and 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Once a foot muscle begins cramping, cease the stretch immediately. Use your fingers to gently massage the area and encourage muscle relaxation. If possible, flex and extend the foot and spread the toes wide as you massage the area. If these simple measures do not relieve the cramp, apply heat with a warm towel or soak your foot in a warm bath. If the cramp is not too severe, try walking on the foot for a few seconds to further stretch the muscles. If your nighttime foot cramps persist, speak with your physician, who may prescribe a medication to relax your muscles at night.
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