A foot cramp can strike out of nowhere, waking you from a sound sleep. You may suddenly feel the muscles tighten or knot up for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes at a time.
Nighttime foot cramps are closely related to nocturnal leg cramps, so you may also feel these sensations in your calves or thighs.
The good news is that these cramps aren’t usually a reason for concern. While they can be associated with certain medical conditions, like diabetes or hypothyroidism, stretches and lifestyle changes may help ease them fast or help them go away entirely.
Up to 60 percent of adults and 7 percent of children report getting nocturnal foot or leg cramps, notes a 2012 review.
There are a variety of causes for cramping. Spasms may happen just once in the night or result in repeat episodes that lead to insomnia and lingering pain.
Sitting for long periods of time or otherwise being inactive may make the muscles in your feet more apt to cramp.
Sitting with poor posture may also inhibit blood flow to your feet or lead to nerve compression — two risk factors for developing cramps.
Even your sleep position may be a factor in circulation and nerve issues. So, you may want to examine how you sleep to see if it might be contributing to nighttime cramping.
Overexertion of the muscles
On the other end of the spectrum, working the muscles in your feet too hard may make them vulnerable to cramping.
The muscle fibers in your feet continually contract and expand to allow movement. If you do too much of an activity too soon or work your feet too strenuously, you may experience fatigue in your muscles.
Fatigue depletes your body of oxygen and allows waste products to build up throughout the day and produce cramping and spasms at night.
Improper footwear or hard surfaces
Wearing poorly fitted shoes or shoes without enough support throughout the day may tax foot muscles as well. Not only that, but standing or working on concrete floors or other hard surfaces can have a similar effect.
The foot muscles work extra hard to support the weight of your body. Improper footwear may also impair the foot’s circulation, cutting off blood and oxygen and producing painful spasms even when you’re off your feet.
Maybe you’re not drinking enough water or you have a bout of diarrhea or other illness that dehydrates you. Even exercising in hot weather can dehydrate you quickly, draining your body of precious fluids, salts, and minerals, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
When your body gets low in fluids and electrolytes, your muscles become more vulnerable to spasms and cramps. You continue sweating and losing fluids while you sleep. This why your foot cramps may arise in the overnight hours.
If you suspect you may have a nutritional deficiency, contact your doctor. A simple blood test can reveal your levels and indicate to your doctor if any supplementation or other treatment for underlying conditions is necessary.
Note that taking too many supplements may actually cause more harm than good.
Excessive alcohol use
Drinking too much alcohol may lead to nerve damage and a condition known as alcoholic neuropathy. Symptoms include anything from muscle cramping and weakness to numbness and tingling in the arms or legs.
Not only that, but heavy alcohol use may also contribute to dehydration and nutritional deficiencies in important B vitamins.
Just as with other nutritional deficiencies, lacking these vitamins may impair nerve function, making symptoms like muscle spasms worse.
Women who are pregnant are more susceptible to leg and foot cramping at night, particularly in the second and third trimesters.
Unfortunately, researchers don’t know exactly why this is the case. Possible reasons may include:
- extra weight on the feet as baby grows
- nutritional deficiencies, particularly in magnesium
Health issues and medications
Medical conditions associated with nighttime foot cramping include:
- structural issues, like spinal stenosis and peripheral arterial disease
- metabolic issues, like kidney disease, anemia, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, or type 1 or type 2 diabetes
- other conditions, like nerve damage, osteoarthritis, and Parkinson’s disease
Certain medications may also make you more susceptible to cramping. These include:
If you’re on dialysis, this can also make you more prone to cramping, too.
There are no specific treatments doctors recommend to treat overnight foot cramping. Instead, it’s best to treat its underlying cause.
Move your body
If you exercise regularly, keep it up! Regular movement may help prevent leg and foot cramps in the day and night.
New to exercise? Speak with your doctor for recommendations on a plan that may work for you. Try brisk walks around your neighborhood (wearing supportive shoes) or other low-impact activities to start.
Some people have even reported a few minutes on an exercise bike or treadmill before bed helps with nocturnal leg and foot cramps.
Stretch and soothe your muscles
Be sure to stretch each day to keep foot muscles loose, especially before and after you get in a sweat session.
What if you’re having a cramp at night? Stretch your foot forcefully to relieve the cramp by flexing your foot and pressing down on your big toe.
Walking around and jiggling your leg may also help with both foot and leg cramps. Taking a warm bath or shower or using ice may ease any lingering pain. Deep tissue massage may help in the long term.
Examine your shoes
Wear supportive shoes that are comfortable, especially if you often walk a lot on hard surfaces.
Find a shoe with a firm heel counter. This is the part of the shoe that helps nest your heel in place.
If you’re having trouble or don’t find any comfortable shoes, your doctor may refer you to a podiatrist for custom inserts.
Drink more water
Experts recommend that men drink 15.5 cups and women drink 11.5 cups of fluids like water each day. Keeping your muscles hydrated can help prevent cramping.
A good rule of thumb is that your urine should be light yellow to clear. If it’s darker than that, consider drinking another glass of water.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women may need as many as 13 cups of fluid per day to meet their hydration needs.
Eat well and supplement
Eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. If you have a diagnosed deficiency, address it with your doctor’s supervision.
The Mayo Clinic says there's some research to support magnesium supplementation as a means to help with cramping. Ask your doctor about dosage and brand suggestions. Supplements are available in your local grocery store, health food store, or online.
Foods rich in magnesium include:
- whole grains
- unsweetened dried fruits
Bananas and leafy greens may also help balance electrolytes.
Lower your alcohol intake
Limit alcoholic beverages, like beer, wine, and mixed drinks, since these can dehydrate you.
In the case of alcohol-related nerve damage, seek help if you’re having a hard time quitting drinking. Consider reaching out to your doctor, a friend, or a local support program.
Conditions like alcoholic neuropathy can lead to permanent and progressive nerve damage. Early treatment is key in preventing this.
Let your doctor know if you’re experiencing nighttime foot cramping during pregnancy. While many of the same self-care measures may help you, your doctor can provide additional guidance.
Stretch your foot when a cramp strikes and elevate your legs to keep cramps at bay. Staying active, getting a massage, and taking a warm (not hot) shower or bath may also help.
You may find that the cramps go away on their own after you deliver your baby.
Foot cramps tend to go away on their own with home treatment, like stretching, or lifestyle changes, like drinking more water.
Call your doctor if your cramps are causing particularly severe discomfort or if you notice any swelling, redness, or other changes to the foot or surrounding structures.
You may also want to make an appointment if the cramps are happening frequently and don’t improve with changes to your routine.