Muscle cramps are usually harmless, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t painful. If you’ve ever had a “charley horse,” you know that the sharp, tightening pain can be highly unpleasant. A cramp happens when a muscle suddenly contracts and doesn’t relax. It can affect any muscle, and toes are no exception.
Most people will experience quite a few muscle cramps in their lifetime. We use our toes every day to walk, so they get quite the workout — even if you’re not an athlete. However, some people are more prone to muscle cramps than others.
Dehydration and over-exertion are common causes of cramps during exercise. When you’re dehydrated, electrolyte levels in your body drop, which can lead to muscle cramps.
As people get older, they lose muscle mass. The remaining muscle has to work harder. Starting in your early 40s, if you’re not regularly active, muscles can get stressed more easily, leading to cramps.
Muscle cramps can be more common in people with medical conditions such as diabetes or liver disease. People with diabetes are at risk for peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes damage to the nerves in your fingers and toes. When these nerves don’t function properly, you can experience pain and cramping. If your liver isn’t working correctly, it can’t filter toxins from the blood. The buildup of toxins can also lead to muscle cramps and spasms.
For some people, certain medications contribute to muscle cramps. These can include diuretics and cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins and nicotinic acid.
Having too little sodium, potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your body might be the source of your cramps. These minerals are all important for muscle and nerve function as well as blood pressure.
Most people are able to successfully treat toe cramps with the at-home remedies listed below. However, if you find that your cramps aren’t going away or are getting worse, talk to your doctor.
1. Stretch them
Often, regular stretching and strengthening exercises will help you avoid cramps. The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society recommends the following exercises:
- Toe Raise: Raise your heel off the ground so that only your toes and the ball of your foot are touching the floor. Hold for five seconds, lower, and repeat 10 times.
- Toe Flex: Flex your foot so your big toe looks like it’s pointing in one direction. Hold for five seconds and repeat 10 times.
- Toe Curl: Bend all of your toes as if you’re trying to tuck them under your foot. Hold for five seconds and repeat 10 times. You can also put a towel on the ground and use only your toes to grab it.
- Marble Pick Up: Place 20 marbles on the floor. One at a time, pick them up and place them in a bowl using only your toes.
- Sand Walking: If you’re lucky enough to get to the beach, walking barefoot in the sand can help massage and strengthen the muscles in your feet and toes.
2. Use heat or ice
Hot: Heat can help tight muscles to relax. Apply a warm towel or heating pad to the cramped toe. You can also soak your foot in warm water.
Cold: Ice can help with pain relief. Gently massage your toe using a cold pack or ice wrapped in a towel.
3. Up your electrolyte intake
Sweating makes your body release salt and minerals, particularly calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Some medications, such as diuretics, also cause your body to lose minerals. If you’re not getting the daily recommended levels of calcium (1,000 mg), potassium (4,700 mg), and magnesium (400 mg), these foods can give you a boost:
- Yogurt, low-fat milk, and cheese are all high in calcium.
- Spinach and broccoli are good sources of potassium and magnesium.
- Almonds are high in magnesium.
- Bananas are high in potassium and great before a workout.
4. Change your shoes
The type of shoe you wear can also cause toe cramps. For example, spending the whole day in high heels can increase your risk of toe cramps. High-heeled shoes can squish toes and put pressure on the ball of your foot. Dancers, runners, and other athletes may experience toe cramps from wearing the wrong type of shoe for their foot shape. Look for styles with a wider toe box and toss the heels if they’re causing discomfort.