We all know the scenario: you are in bed, about to doze off after a long day when suddenly you are surprised by a cramping sensation in your toes. The toe cramps worsen, and you must get up and stretch to get relief. After a short period of time, the cramping subsides, and you are left with a little bit of soreness in your foot and the age-old question, "What caused my toe cramps, and how do I get relief?"
Anatomy of the Foot and Toes
Your foot is comprised of several bones—some small and short and some long—that connect your ankle joint to your toes. Many ligaments course from one bone to another. These provide stability to your foot.
Extrinsic muscles of your lower leg turn into tendons that travel down your ankle and connect to various places around your foot to move it. There are also intrinsic muscles between the long bones of your foot that help to shape and position your foot as you walk and run. On the bottom of your foot is the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that forms the arch of your foot.
All of these ligaments, tendons, and muscles work together to support your foot, move your foot, and ultimately allow your feet to do the amazing things that they do every day. And many times, you can make it through an entire day or week and not have any problems. So why would a foot or toe cramp come on so suddenly?
Reasons for Toe Cramps
There are many different possible triggers for toe cramps. The most frustrating thing about them is that you may have one—or many—different issues that can cause the cramps.
The scientific community has not found one single variable that consistently causes toe and foot cramping.
By understanding the possible causes of toe and foot cramps, you can possibly find the right treatment for the problem. Reasons for toe cramps may include:1
Dehydration: It is theorized that if your water intake is not up to par, you may create an imbalance of electrolytes—potassium, magnesium, and sodium, for example—in your muscles. This imbalance may cause the muscles around your toes and feet to contract uncontrollably. Interestingly, not everyone who is dehydrated gets a leg, toe, or foot cramp, which can be baffling for patients.
Lack of Exercise: When we exercise, our bodies are used, and this use helps keep our muscles strong and flexible. Exercise can also improve balance and allow your nervous system to get some extra action. A nervous system that is functioning properly can help keep lower extremity cramps at bay by modulating muscle tone and contractions.
Poor-Fitting Footwear: Our feet take a lot of abuse each day. The amount of force they are required to absorb and dissipate is far greater than your body weight. Wearing shoes that do not fit well may be causing toe cramps. Imagine the excess stress that jamming your foot into a tight-fitting pair of (fabulous looking) high heels may cause. Ill-fitting footwear puts your feet and toes in a less-than-optimal position for them to function properly, and they may rebel by cramping up at a moment's notice.2
Certain Medical Conditions: Some medical conditions, like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, or diabetes, may cause changes in the way your nervous system functions. This may cause abnormal spasms and cramping sensations in your feet and toes. Sometimes, medication can have side effects that cause cramping in the toes.
Age: As we age, our nervous and muscular systems may slowly and slightly decrease in function. Older persons have less water content stored away in their muscles and tendons. This may cause unwanted muscle contractions and tightness in the muscles around your feet and toes.
Whatever is causing your toe cramps, you should take time to find out the real cause and start working on getting relief.
How to Get Relief From Toe and Foot Cramps
If you are suffering from frequent toe and foot cramps, there are some ways to get relief. These may include:
Drinking plenty of water. Staying hydrated can create a balance of electrolytes and water in your muscles.
Wearing properly fitting shoes. Shoes that fit properly allow your feet to move and function the way they are supposed to.
Exercising regularly and performing a variety of strength, balance, and flexibility exercises. Exercise keeps your muscles, joints, tendons, and nerves all operating properly, leading to the possibility of decreased muscle cramps in the toes.
Eating a variety of healthy foods. Maintaining proper nutrition can ensure that your body has the nutrients necessary to function properly.
Checking your medication to ensure that the doses are correct. If medical issues require that you take medicine, speak with your doctor or pharmacist to see if the medicine may be causing your toe cramps. (Never adjust your medication without the advice of your doctor.)
A study published in the journal Family Practice says that many people who suffer from nocturnal leg cramping try a variety of different treatments. The researchers found that only about 20 percent of patients were actively treating leg and foot cramps and that 17 different drug regimens were used in this population. Thirteen different non-pharmacological treatments were reportedly used by patients. The conclusion: people suffering from leg and toe cramps try a variety of different treatments for their condition.3
There is really no consensus on the one correct treatment for any one person.
Foot and toe cramps can happen for a variety of reasons, so attacking the problem from different angles may provide you the best chance at relief.
Advice From Your Physical Therapist
If you are having toe and foot cramps, you should visit your doctor to make sure that your problem isn't caused by something serious like multiple sclerosis or diabetic neuropathy. Both of these are rare, but it's best to get things checked out, just to be sure.
Since the causes of toe cramps are so variable, your doctor will likely not be able to offer much in terms of treatment. Enter your physical therapist. Visiting your local PT may be just what is needed to get relief from your toe cramps. Why? Because your physical therapist is trained to examine all of the various biomechanical and neurological causes of your condition. He or she can devise a treatment strategy to help relieve your toe cramps and prevent future episodes from occurring.
Exercises that may be done to alleviate toe cramps may include:
Calf and soleus stretches
The plantar fascia toe stretch
Ankle strengthening exercises
Be sure you see your PT or doctor before starting any exercise program for toe cramps.
A Word From Verywell
Toe cramps can vary from being a mild nuisance to being a painful and function-limiting experience. By working to find the triggers for your specific toe-cramping situation and by making some simple lifestyle changes, you can get rid of toe cramping and keep your feet feeling fine.