The toes and feet bear the weight of the body every day. People may squeeze them into tight-fitting shoes or subject them to pressure while playing sports, making toe cramps a common complaint.
When people experience toe cramps, they may be a mild annoyance or so intense that walking becomes difficult.
Toe cramps have many possible causes. In most cases, the pain is temporary and will subside without treatment.
In this article, learn about the possible causes of toe cramps and how to get relief with treatment and home remedies.
Causes of toe cramps can include:
1. Tight or weak muscles
Dozens of tiny muscles help the foot and toes move. Tightness in any of these muscles can cause muscle spasms and pain.
Sometimes the pain comes from another muscle. An example of this might be tension in the ankle or Achilles tendon that causes muscle spasms in the foot or toes.
Some common reasons for muscle tension or weakness include:
- a new exercise routine
- wearing ill-fitting shoes
- a sedentary lifestyle
- not stretching before exercise
2. Muscle injuries
Injuries to muscles and other tissues in the feet, toes, or calves can cause toe cramps or soreness.
Sprains, which are injuries to ligaments, can cause weakness and pain in the toes. Strains, which are injuries to muscles or tendons, can also cause pain.
Some common causes of muscle injuries include:
- a fall or blow to the foot or leg
- overextending a muscle, tendon, or ligament
3. Poorly fitting shoes
High heels, shoes that are too tight or loose, and pointy-toed shoes can put pressure on the toes and surrounding areas.
This pressure can cause toe cramps, especially if the shoes force them into an awkward position. Shoes that do not fit properly can also cause muscle injuries.
Dehydration sometimes causes muscles to cramp or feel tense.
Dehydration is especially likely to cause toe cramps when the muscles are already injured or overexerted, or when tight shoes hurt the toes.
5. Electrolyte imbalances
Electrolyte imbalances can cause the muscles to cramp and spasm. Sometimes, dehydration causes an electrolyte imbalance.
In other cases, an underlying medical condition may be the culprit. Tetany, which is due to low levels of calcium, is an electrolyte imbalance that may cause muscle cramps.
6. Restless leg syndrome
About a third of people over 50 years old experience RLS. Nighttime foot and leg cramps are also common when women are pregnant.
RLS is not well understood, and doctors are not sure what causes it.
7. Nerve damage
Neuropathy is when a person’s nerves are damaged. The condition causes pain, cramps, tingling, or numbness.
Other conditions can also cause nerve damage, including Parkinson’s disease.
8. Poor blood flow
When there is not enough blood flow to the feet or toes, they may ache or spasm. Sitting for a long time, having diabetes, and crossing the legs for too long can slow blood flow to the toes and feet.
Peripheral artery disease causes arteries throughout the body to narrow, weakening blood flow. This condition may also cause toe cramps.
If a person is also experiencing joint pain, or if other joints hurt, such as those in the hands, it could be a sign of arthritis.
Dystonia is a symptom and not a disease. Dystonia is an ongoing involuntary contraction or spasm in a muscle or group of muscles.
11. Organ failure
Problems with various organs can alter electrolyte levels, make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, and damage muscles and nerves.
Organ failure can cause pain, cramps, and spasms throughout the body. People at risk of kidney or liver failure should see a doctor if they are experience muscle cramps.
12. Rare infections
Very rarely, an infection can damage the muscles or harm the nervous system in a way that causes muscle cramps.
People can often treat minor muscle injuries and other causes of temporary toe cramps at home. Some potentially effective home remedies include:
- Stretching: Try flexing and then extending the toes 5–10 times. Follow this by stretching the ankles and feet by rotating the feet and ankles clockwise then counterclockwise 5–10 times may also help.
- Exercise: Light exercise, such as walking, can help strengthen the muscles of the legs, feet, and toes. Exercises that target the feet and toes may also help. Try placing objects on the floor, then picking them up with the toes.
- Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE): Resting a minor injury, wrapping it, elevating it, and applying ice packs for about 20 minutes at a time may help reduce symptoms.
- Heat: Heat can sometimes help with injuries and muscle cramps. For extra relief, try alternating heat and cold packs.
- Massage: Massaging the feet, legs, and the ankles may help muscle spasms. Start with gentle massage then gradually increase the pressure.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Drugs known as NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, can help with pain due to muscle injuries, arthritis, and other common causes of cramps.
Home remedies can also offer temporary relief when toe cramps are due to a serious underlying condition, although they will not cure the condition, and relying on home remedies alone may allow the disorder to progress and get worse. If the cramps last for more than a few days, it is best to see a doctor.
A few simple strategies can reduce the risk of toe cramps. Tips for prevention include:
- Keeping physically active. People who work at desk jobs should take frequent walking breaks.
- Wearing supportive shoes that fit. Orthotic shoes and special shoes for different sports can help prevent toe injuries.
- Stretching the muscles of the toes and feet every day. Consider joining a yoga or Pilates class for more sustained stretching.
- Treating any underlying medical conditions. This includes making any lifestyle changes a doctor recommends and taking medication exactly as a doctor prescribes.
A person should see a doctor if:
- Cramps are so painful that they make it difficult to walk or function.
- Cramps come with signs of an infection, such as a fever or a visible injury to the foot.
- Cramps occur in a person with an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes or kidney failure.
- Cramps do not get better without treatment within a week.
- The feet are swollen or discolored.
- The feet feel numb.
The right medical treatment for toe cramps depends on the cause. A doctor will do a thorough exam and may order X-rays or other imaging tests to check for injuries.
If the doctor suspects an underlying condition, they might order blood work or other tests.
Depending on the cause, the doctor may recommend:
- medication to manage chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or arthritis
- lifestyle changes, such as a low glycemic index diet for diabetes
- surgery to repair injuries
- orthotic shoe inserts
- physical therapy
Toe cramps can be bothersome, but they are a common experience. They often go away on their own without treatment.
For toe cramps that get worse or do not reduce over time, it is best to see a doctor. A doctor can help diagnose the underlying cause and offer medical treatment and lifestyle changes that may help.