Toe cramps can ruin our workouts and destroy our sleep patterns. They’re annoying, to say the least! According to some scientists, muscle cramps are caused by our modern lifestyle.
Our ancestors spent a lot of time in the squatting position and rarely wore shoes. This allowed them to lengthen and strengthen the muscles in their legs and feet. In turn, this protected against toe cramps.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to improve muscle strength, to prevent cramping in the toes. We’ll also consider some additional causes of toe cramps and reveal the fastest ways to find relief from frozen muscles.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Reasons Your Toes Keep Cramping
- 1.1 What Are Toe Cramps?
- 1.2 Why Am I Getting Cramps at Night?
- 1.3 How to Deal with Toe Cramps
- 1.4 Relax Muscles with a Massage
- 1.5 How to Stop Toe Cramps
- 1.6 Toe Cramps in Older Age
- 1.7 Why Does Exercise Cause Cramp in Toes?
- 1.8 Cramp in Big Toes Caused by Running
- 1.9 Can Squats Help Relieve Cramps?
- 1.10 Can Pregnancy Cause Toe Cramps?
- 1.11 Cramps Caused by Dehydration
- 1.12 Which Medications Cause Toe Cramping?
- 1.13 Link Between Varicose Veins and Foot Cramps
- 1.14 Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies and Muscle Cramps
- 1.15 Toe Cramps Caused by Diabetes
- 1.16 Is It a Cramp (or Something Else)?
- 1.17 Stop Toe Cramps Returning
- 1.18 Read Our Latest Posts:
Reasons Your Toes Keep Cramping
Toe cramps will affect most people during their lifetime, though some people are more likely to suffer than others.
Starting with the most common causes, let’s explore the risk factors for developing cramps in the toes:
- Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalances –Dehydration is one of the leading causes of cramps and muscle spasms. As we’ll explore, various factors can cause dehydration besides forgetting to drink enough water.
- Inactivity – A sedentary lifestyle can lead to poor circulation and weakened muscles – which may lead to cramps.
- Intensive Exercise – Conversely, rigorous workouts can cause the toes to curl and stiffen. This is because the muscles have been overworked. Running is specifically related to big toe cramp.
- Tight Footwear – Narrow shoes can encourage toe cramping because they squash the toes.
- Aging –If you’re over 65 years old, you’re 3 times more likely to suffer leg and toe cramps.
- Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies – As we’ll explore, various vitamin deficiencies can lead to muscle cramps.
- Pregnancy – Circulatory changes, hormonal changes, and extra weight during pregnancy can cause the toe muscles to seize up.
- Medications – Toe cramps are a side effect of certain medications.
- Varicose Veins – Foot cramps could be an early sign of varicose veins. We’ll explore the link between venous health and muscle cramps a little later on.
- Endocrine Disorders – People with thyroid conditions or diabetes are likely to experience foot cramps.
- Hypoxia – This condition occurs when there is insufficient oxygen to one or more areas of the body. Causes of hypoxia include walking at high altitudes (without training) and severe iron deficiency anemia.
What Are Toe Cramps?
A toe cramp occurs when the muscle in the toe contracts suddenly (without warning) and does not immediately relax. As a result, the toe curls inwards and becomes stiff. On the pain-scale, toe cramps can range on from irritating to excruciating.
When the toes cramp and get stuck, the paralysis usually lasts for less than 3 minutes.
There are four layers of ‘intrinsic’ foot muscles. Pressure or damage to one or more of these muscles can cause the toes to cramp.
Toe cramps can affect all of the toes at once, though it’s possible to experience cramps in just one toe. Autonomous toe cramps often occur in the big toe and/or the pinky toe, as the muscles in these toes differ slightly to muscles in the other toes.
Besides the toes, common places to experience cramps include:
- Arches of the feet
- Soles of the feet
- Calve muscles
- Thigh muscles
Some people experience muscle cramps in the ribs, back, and shoulders though lower body cramps are a lot more common.
Why Am I Getting Cramps at Night?
Nocturnal foot cramps are particularly distressing because they can delay the onset of sleep or disturb sleep throughout the night. Unfortunately, it is common for foot cramps to worsen at night; but why should this be?
It could be that, because we are not stretching or flexing our muscles at night, the muscles are more likely to seize up. However, a study on JAMA Network found that stretching the feet and ankles (while in bed) actually encouraged muscle cramps to develop in some older people.
Could it be because we are more likely to be dehydrated at night, then? Or, perhaps the sleeping positions we choose cut-off oxygen supply to the feet and make cramps more likely.
Scientists are still undecided as to why cramps seem to get worse at night. In any case, it pays to tackle cramps as early as possible, so they don’t have a negative impact on your sleep patterns.
How to Deal with Toe Cramps
When you’re suffering from a toe cramp, you want fast pain relief.
The following exercise should enable you to get some immediate relief from the cramping:
- Stop the Activity – If you’re in the middle of a workout, don’t try to ‘power-through’ the cramp; it’s best to stop.
- Gentle Stretches – Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you (or sit in a chair). Place your hand across the toes and pull the toes towards your shins. Hold this stretch for at least a minute.
- Toe Elevations – When the cramp pain starts to diminish, try some toe elevations. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and elevate yourself, so you are standing on your toes for 2-3 seconds. Repeat eight sets of these.
- Massage the Feet – After the cramp has started to pass, give your feet a massage or use a home massage machine to help relieve the pain and heaviness. Massage may also prevent further cramps.
- Slow Walking – Walking around very slowly should help ensure your cramp does not return. Some people also find it useful to perform lower leg stretches at this stage.
- Pain Medication – If once the cramps have gone, there is some residual pain, some people find paracetamol helps.
These steps should help you relax a contracting (cramping) muscle so that you can find relief as quickly as possible. Later, we’ll explore some other stretches that will prevent cramps returning.
Relax Muscles with a Massage
Although the cramps pass within a few minutes, the discomfort in the muscle can linger for many hours. Massage can help relieve achy toes and may help improve blood circulation/ Improving circulation may help prevent cramps in the future!
How to Massage the Feet and Toes
When massaging the feet work the fingers in long, circular motions, as if you are encouraging the muscles to stretch out and relax. Direct the circular motions towards your heart.
Apply pressure on the areas that are prone to cramp and try to massage them in alternative directions. For example, if your pinky toe tends to curl inwards, try massaging it into alternative positions (stretch it out straight, pull it towards you, or stretch it to the side).
Try to focus on the ankle, the heel and the ball of the foot. These parts of the foot are joined up to the toes, so massaging these areas will benefit the toes, too!
Use a massage oil that has anti-spasmodic and muscle-relaxing qualities. Studies have shown that the following oils may relieve muscle pain and reduce muscle spasms:
- Lemon balm essential oil
- Lavender essential oil
- Liquid magnesium oil (magnesium chloride hexahydrate)
If you’re massaging your feet with essential oil, be sure to dilute it in a carrier oil first to avoid skin irritation.
How to Stop Toe Cramps
As discussed, there are various causes of toe cramps. Treatments should be tailored to each individual, to ensure the root of the problem is tackled.
Broadly speaking, there are 6 branches of treatment. These include:
- Exercise Sensibly – Exercise is excellent for muscle health. It will also improve circulation – which should protect against cramps. On the other hand, intensive exercise can cause debilitating toe cramps. As such, it’s crucial to exercise sensibly.
- Introduce Stretches – Stretches can speed up recovery from toe cramps and prevent them returning.
- Improve Body Strength – Muscles do not work in isolation, they interact with each other. As such, strengthening muscles in the feet, ankle, and core may help prevent toe cramps.
- Hydrate yourself – Hydration is vital for preventing toe cramps.
- Increase Intake of Essential Vitamins and Minerals – Depending on the cause of your toe cramps, consuming foods rich in vitamin B, magnesium and calcium may help prevent further cramps.
- Change your Footwear – Footwear that allows the toes to spread out is vital. Supportive footwear can also help protect the feet and toes during sports activities.
Some of these treatments will be more applicable to your situation than others. Let’s explore some the causes of toe cramps – and their targeted treatments – in a little more detail.
Toe Cramps in Older Age
Muscle cramps in the feet and toes are much more common in old age. Cramps are sometimes associated with chronic conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson’s, and these conditions are more likely to develop in older age.
Two-thirds of over-60-year old’s experience cramps on a weekly basis, and many find their symptoms get worse at night. In part, this could be related to sleeping positions.
Also, cramps tend to last longer in older people, perhaps because limited mobility restricts their ability to intervene and stretch out the muscles.
What Can Be Done?
The first-line treatment for toe cramps in older people is to stay hydrated throughout the day. Taking a short walk daily may also improve circulation and help prevent muscle cramps.
In some cases, mobility issues make stretching difficult. Doctors can prescribe a medicine called quinine for patients who are unable to control their cramping by any other methods. However, quinine is not suitable for everyone.
Sleeping positions can sometimes contribute to nocturnal cramping. You should avoid sleeping on your front where possible as this could ‘trap’ your toes, causing the muscles in your feet or calves to contract and cramp. Some people find it helpful to place a pillow under their feet to dissuade them from moving the feet too much in the night (potentially preempting cramps).
Why Does Exercise Cause Cramp in Toes?
Running, athletics, tennis, rock climbing, hiking, and gymnastics all place a strain on the ball of the feet and the toes. Anything that places a strain on the toes could cause toe cramping.
Cramping can set-in when you start a new exercise regime, or you step-up the pace of your existing workouts. It can also be worsened by ill-fitting or unsuitable sports shoes. In particular, trainers with a narrow toe box can make toe cramps more likely.
If you play sports in very hot weather, the heat and overexertion may induce muscle cramps due to dehydration. We’ll explore the issue of dehydration in more detail a little later on.
What Can Be Done?
To stop cramps developing, first – make sure you are wearing appropriate footwear for the exercise you’re doing. There should be plenty of wiggle room in the toe box so that your toes can ‘splay’ comfortably.
To prevent cramps, try these foot and toe strengthening exercises:
- Place ten marbles on the floor and try to pick these up (and place them in a container) using only your feet.
- Try to spread your toes as far apart as you can and hold for three seconds, before returning them to their original position. Repeat eight times. Try to do 2-3 sets per day.
- When you’re walking around the house, alternate between walking on your toes and then on your heels. Spend 20 seconds walking on each.
Alternatively, practicing yoga barefoot will enable you to strengthen the muscles in your feet and toes.
Cramp in Big Toes Caused by Running
If cramp is occurring exclusively in the big toe, you’ve probably strained the abductor hallucis muscle in your foot. The abductor hallucis muscle runs from the heel to the big toe. It controls flexion of the big toe and also helps to support the arch of the foot.
Running is known to put a lot of pressure on the abductor hallucis muscle – particularly if you tend to overpronate your foot. Overpronation occurs when you place more pressure on the inside of your foot when it hits the ground.
When pressure is placed on the abductor hallucis, this can cause the muscle to contract unexpectedly. This could cause cramp in the arch of the foot, or in the big toe.
If your big toe (or arches) are cramping, don’t ignore this. It’s a sign you should alter your running style and your footwear. An aggravated abductor hallucis can lead to plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis or tarsal tunnel syndrome.
What Can Be Done?
Your first step should be to visit a specialist running shop for a gait analysis. They can advise you which running shoes will reduce overpronation and protect the muscles in your feet.
Also, you should focus on strengthening the abductor hallucis (and other muscles in your feet). To achieve this, try the following exercise:
- Stand on one leg and stretch the other leg out in front of you – the leg should be about 20 cm off the floor.
- Start by flexing (pointing) your toes towards the ground – don’t let them touch the floor. Hold this flex for 5-10 seconds.
- Bring the ankle back into neutral position, and pull the toes up towards your shin, as high as you can. Hold for 5 – 10 seconds.
- Repeat 8 reps on each foot.
Ideally, these exercises should be completed a couple of times a day. They can also be done from a seated position, so you could do them when watching television.
Also, barefoot walking/running on sand is an excellent way to build strength in your feet. If stretches do not reduce the cramps, you should visit a podiatrist for further investigation. Insoles may be required to correct your gait and eliminate the muscle cramps.
Can Squats Help Relieve Cramps?
When cramps develop in the toes, this doesn’t necessarily indicate the toes have been overworked; another part of the body that connects to the toes could have been overworked. For example, the Achilles tendon, the calf muscles or the spine could be involved. For this reason, stretching the entire lower body can be helpful.
Building strength and stability is necessary because it will stop you putting pressure on individual muscles and causing cramps to occur in weak spots. Squats are one of the most important exercises you can do to build stability and prevent cramps in the lower body.
How to Squat:
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width, and keep your head facing forward
- Extend your arms out in front and clasp the hands together
- Squat down, as if you are going to sit on a very low chair
- Continue to face forward as you lower yourself down and don’t arch your spine
- Put all your body weight onto your heels, and focus on sitting right back into your heels
- Push yourself back up through the heels
It’s best to warm up properly before performing squats.
Can Pregnancy Cause Toe Cramps?
Vitamin and mineral requirements increase during pregnancy. If these are not met through diet and supplements, cramps may develop. Also, increased body weight and changes in blood circulation can cause muscles to contract unexpectedly.
Cramps are most likely to occur in the third trimester and can be particularly disruptive during the night. Unfortunately, the pain felt from cramps can be more intense during pregnancy, and the feeling of discomfort in the muscles can linger for a long time afterward.
What Can Be Done?
Most of the pharmaceutical drugs used to relieve cramping are not suitable for pregnant women, so stretches and relaxation techniques are usually recommended.
If you experience a toe cramp (or cramp in the arch), bring your toes up towards your shins and hold for a few seconds. This should provide some immediate relief. Do not point your toes downwards, as this could worsen the cramp.
According to review on Wiley Online, stretching and massage are thought to reduce muscle cramps in late pregnancy because they help relax the muscles and improve circulation in the legs and feet.
In addition to the stretches previously mentioned, try to incorporate ankle rotations into your daily routine. Ankle rotations will help improve circulation, so may help prevent muscle cramps.
In addition to a foot massage, you could try a warm bath before bed to help the muscles relax. Add a couple of drops of lavender (an anti-spasmodic essential oil) to soothe tired muscles and prevent toe cramps.
Cramps Caused by Dehydration
Dehydration is one of the leading causes of muscle cramps. Dehydration occurs when there is not enough fluid in the body.
The following factors can lead to dehydration:
- Sweating (from overexertion, extreme heat or fever)
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Diuretic therapy (drugs to reduce blood pressure)
- Consuming too many diuretics (coffee, tea, cola)
- Kidney disease and diabetes
If dehydration is not remedied fast, it can cause an electrolyte imbalance in the body. This means levels of potassium, sodium, and magnesium will become altered. This will, almost certainly, lead to muscle cramps.
How Can I Stay Hydrated?
- Aim to drink 2 liters of water daily
- Sip your water in small amounts, throughout the day
- If you can’t stand plain water, try adding cordial to water or drinking fruit teas
- If you become ill and experience vomiting or diarrhea, take rehydration salts until you feel better
- If you are craving a salty snack, listen to your body and have a handful of crisps or peanuts – but don’t overdo the salt
- Make sure your diet contains enough potassium and calcium, particularly if you exercise regularly
Are Sports Drinks Helpful for Muscle Cramps?
Sports drinks are intended to correct the electrolyte imbalance that can occur during exercise. According to a review in The Sports Medicine Reports Journal, electrolyte drinks can prevent cramps in some athletes but could make things worse for others.
If you usually get very sweaty during exercise, you are more likely to lose electrolytes (particularly sodium) through perspiration. Electrolyte drinks will significantly reduce your chances of developing muscle cramps if you are a ‘sweaty exerciser.’
However, if you are less prone to sweating, sipping water is sufficient for keeping you hydrated. What’s more, if you develop cramps from muscle overuse (rather than electrolyte loss), and you then drink an electrolyte drink – your cramps will probably get worse.
So, electrolyte drinks can be helpful for cramps in some athletes, as long as they’re used wisely.
Which Medications Cause Toe Cramping?
A range of medicines can cause muscle cramps to develop.
- Water Pills (i.e. Furosemide, Microzide) – These are diuretics that can lead to dehydration
- Nifedipine – Medication to treat high blood pressure
- Statins – Medication used to control cholesterol
- Terbutaline – An asthma medication
Cramps can also be caused when withdrawing from addictive substances such as alcohol or recreational drugs.
What Can Be Done?
If your medication is causing you serious toe cramps, you should consult your doctor to see if there is an alternative option.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and staying as hydrated and possible should help lessen the severity of the cramps. Also, try out the toe stretches, and toe massages mentioned in this article.
Link Between Varicose Veins and Foot Cramps
According to a paper on the British Medical Journal, cramps in the feet (and legs) can be an early indicator of varicose veins. That’s not to say that persistent cramps will always develop into varicose veins.
Varicose veins are often associated with a condition called chronic venous insufficiency. This condition occurs when blood flow is less efficient, and blood starts to ‘pool’ in the veins.
This link between muscle cramps and varicose veins suggests that that poor blood circulation has a role to play in some instances of cramping.
What Can Be Done?
One of the most effective treatments for varicose veins is graduated compression socks. These socks are very tight at the feet and ankles and reduce in pressure as they travel up the legs. This encourages blood to flow efficiently towards the heart.
Studies have shown that compression socks not only reduce varicose veins, they also reduce muscle fatigue, cramping, and swelling in the ankles and feet.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies and Muscle Cramps
The B vitamins are thought to be involved in muscle health. Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products, so vegans may struggle to get enough of this vitamin.
One study, mentioned in GM journal, found that 86% of elderly participants were cured of foot cramps after consuming a vitamin-B complex for three months.
In addition to B12 deficiency, several mineral deficiencies can lead to muscle cramps. These include:
- Severe iron deficiency (anemia)
- Calcium deficiency
- Low potassium
- Magnesium deficiency
What Can Be Done?
If you’re vegan or vegetarian suffering from muscle cramps, you should increase your intake of vitamin B12. If you don’t like the idea of tablet supplements, look out for fortified cereals and bread products.
Calcium, potassium, and magnesium can be found in many plant-based, whole foods so try to include as many as possible in your diet. To absorb calcium effectively, you need receive adequate amounts of vitamin D. If you don’t live in a hot climate, you could consider supplementing vitamin D to ensure a calcium deficiency does not develop.
One of the best ways to increase your intake of magnesium is to spray it onto the skin. Massaging a magnesium oil spray into your skin has the added benefit of helping to relax your muscles.
Toe Cramps Caused by Diabetes
Diabetes is an inflammatory condition that can cause a number of foot and ankle complaints – including cramps.
Unstable blood glucose levels can interfere with the muscles’ ability to relax and contract. As a result, diabetics often experience ‘heavy’ feet and cramps in their toes.
Also, unstable blood glucose levels can cause damage to the nerves in the feet and legs (peripheral neuropathy). Damaged nerves are unable to send and receive chemical signals fluently, so spasms occur in the muscles.
Finally, the medication used to control diabetes may cause cramps in the feet and toes.
What Can Be Done?
Controlling blood sugar should improve the frequency and severity of muscle cramps. Furthermore, staying hydrated may help prevent the severity of your cramps.
Is It a Cramp (or Something Else)?
Aches, pains, twinges, and cramps – they all feel similar, but they’re not quite the same.
In a recent study, 95% of participants stated they’d experienced cramps as part of their fitness training. When the experimenters explored this claim, they realized people’s definition of ‘cramps’ differed drastically, and some people were describing other types of pain.
To treat your toe pain effectively, make sure you are not confusing toe cramps with any of these conditions:
- Myalgia – Myalgia means muscle pain. Muscle pain is commonly caused by a pulled or torn muscle, or sometimes by a viral illness. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) refers to the severe muscle pain sometimes felt after an intense (or new) exercise regimen. If your toes feel painful and heavy, but there are no muscle contractions (i.e., curling or stiffening of the toes), you may be suffering myalgia.
- Turf Toe – Like toe cramping, turf toe can be caused by overuse and excessive exercise. However, turf toe tends to affect the big toe exclusively, and it is specifically caused by damage to the ligaments of the big toe. Unlike toe cramping, turf toe is an ongoing injury, so should respond to elevation, compression, and anti-inflammatories.
- A Trapped Nerve & Involuntary Toe Clenching– A trapped nerve in the spine (sciatica) or ankle (i.e., tarsal tunnel syndrome) can cause involuntary toe clenching. Toe clenching is caused by a spasm in the muscles, which is similar to cramping – though not quite the same. Relieving the trapped nerve will usually cure the involuntary muscle spasms.
- Dystonia – Dystonia is also a type of involuntary muscle contraction. This condition causes feet to spasm and turn inwards, particularly during periods of rest. It has neurological causes and is associated with Parkinson’s disease. Dystonia can affect the whole body but usually starts developing at the feet.
- Hammer Toe – A hammer toe is a toe that is bent downwards or curled under. A hammer toe is distinguishable from a cramp or spasm because the bend is permanent. The bend in the toe is usually caused by poorly fitting footwear, a severe injury to the foot, or nerve damage in the spine.
Stop Toe Cramps Returning
Whatever has caused your toe cramps, strengthening the muscles in your feet should prevent them from returning. Whether you achieve muscle strength in a yoga class, running barefoot on the beach, or by ‘training’ your feet at home – your toes will certainly thank you for it.
Also, increasing your fluid intake, improving your diet, and choosing suitable footwear should improve most instances of toe cramps.
Although exercise can cause cramps, it’s important not to hang up the towel. Be sure to combine your workouts with the muscle-strengthening tips in this article, and you’re unlikely to be bothered by those annoying twinges.