Foot cramps at night are a classic sign of muscle fatigue. Other causes of nocturnal foot cramps include low magnesium, hypokalemia, or inadequate footwear.

Nocturnal foot cramps are not the same as restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS causes unpleasant sensations in the legs and the urge to move them.

This article will explore the different causes of foot cramps at night, as well as how to treat and prevent them.

a person holding their foot because they are experiencing Foot cramps at nightShare on Pinterest
A person may develop foot cramps because of muscle fatigue.

People develop foot cramps for various reasons, such as:

1. Muscle fatigue

Overexerting the muscles in the feet through strenuous exercise or working a job that requires standing or walking for long periods of time can cause foot cramps.

Muscle fibers contract and relax to create movement. However, forcing the muscles to work harder than usual or engaging in repetitive movements can lead to muscle fatigue.

According to the authors of a 2019 review article, muscle fatigue can dysregulate the nerve impulses that control muscle movements, which may result in muscle spasms or cramps.

2. Hypokalemia

If a person has low levels of potassium in their body, they may develop hypokalemia.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), potassium is an essential nutrient that supports numerous bodily functions. It helps maintain cell membranes, promotes vital kidney functions, and regulates muscle contractions.

Muscle tissues release potassium during exercise, which dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow to the muscles.

The increase in blood flow floods the muscles while removing toxic side products.

If a person’s potassium level falls below 3 millimoles per liter, the physical symptoms of hypokalemia — including muscle weakness and cramping — may begin to appear.

3. Low magnesium

Magnesium is another vital nutrient that supports various bodily functions, including blood pressure regulation, DNA synthesis, and muscle health.

If a person has insufficient levels of magnesium in their body, they may develop foot cramps.

Certain medical conditions — such as celiac disease, chronic diarrhea, or chronic alcohol use — can lead to magnesium deficiency.

Some early signs of magnesium deficiency include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • muscle weakness

Moderate-to-severe magnesium deficiency may cause:

  • involuntary muscle contractions
  • muscle cramps
  • numbness
  • heart arrhythmias
  • seizures

4. Pregnancy

People are more susceptible to nocturnal foot cramps during pregnancy. The exact reason for this remains unclear, but one theory is that pregnancy affects how the body uses calcium.

Low calcium levels may lead to muscular sensitivity and muscle cramps.

People can treat calcium deficiency by consuming calcium-rich foods or by taking a calcium supplement.

5. Side effects of medication

Certain medications — including beta-agonists, statins, and diuretics — can cause leg or foot cramps as a side effect.

People who receive dialysis may also have a higher risk of developing muscle cramps.

6. Footwear

Wearing tight shoes can put excessive pressure on the feet and toes, thus restricting blood flow to these areas.

High heels and shoes without arch support can force the feet into uncomfortable positions that may cause cramping later on.

Foot cramps at night can be very painful. However, gently massaging or stretching the cramped muscle may help loosen it up and relieve the pain faster.

Regularly stretching before and after exercising can help prevent muscle cramps in the future.

A person can also take medications or use topical ointments to ease the pain.

The following sections describe some of these treatment options in detail.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), a person should repeat these exercises three times per day.

Consider the following stretches and exercises for relieving foot cramps:

Seated foot and heel raise

  1. Start with the feet flat on the floor, then raise the heels. Hold for 2 seconds.
  2. Place the feet back flat on the floor.
  3. Raise the toes and hold for 2 seconds. Place the feet back on the floor.
  4. Repeat this process five times.

Toe bend

  1. Start with the feet facing ahead. Bend the toes down for 2 seconds.
  2. Return the feet to the original position.
  3. Bend the toes up for 2 seconds, then relax the feet.
  4. Repeat this process five times.

Big toe lift

  1. Place the feet flat on the floor, facing straight ahead.
  2. Raise the big toe and hold for 2 seconds.
  3. Lower the big toe and relax the feet.
  4. Repeat this process five times.

Standing calf stretch

  1. Face a wall and place one foot on the wall.
  2. Lean into the stretch for 2 seconds.
  3. Swap the leg if necessary.
  4. Repeat this process five times.

People can treat most muscle cramps at home by resting the affected muscles, drinking water with electrolytes, and applying warm or cold compresses.

People can reduce foot cramps related to exercise by reducing the amount or intensity of their workouts. Getting a deep tissue massage and stretching may also help relieve tight muscles.

Muscle cramps related to mineral deficiencies may improve with dietary changes. Leafy green vegetables, legumes, and nuts are all rich sources of magnesium. Many fruits and vegetables also contain high quantities of potassium.

People can also treat mineral deficiencies using over-the-counter supplements.

People who experience frequent foot cramps may want to consider changing their shoes. Not wearing shoes with high heels and pointed toes may help prevent future foot cramps. People can also purchase shoe inserts with arch support.

People who have severe or persistent foot cramps that do not improve with stretching or other at-home treatments can speak to their doctor about other treatment options.

A doctor may recommend medications such as topical pain relievers or muscle relaxants, or they may suggest another type of therapy.

According to a 2016 review, people have used quinine in the past to treat nocturnal muscle cramps.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not recommend using quinine for treating or preventing leg cramps due to the risk of severe side effects.

People can prevent foot cramps at night by:

  • stretching and exercising regularly
  • eating nutritionally dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts
  • wearing shoes that fit properly
  • discussing any medication side effects with a doctor

Certain lifestyle factors and medical conditions are associated with nighttime muscle cramps.

Medical conditions include:

Other factors that could potentially increase a person’s risk of developing foot cramps include:

  • having poor overall health
  • being older
  • having overweight or obesity
  • being pregnant
  • smoking

People can develop foot cramps for many possible reasons.

Many people can treat cramps at home with stretches and rest. A doctor can help identify other underlying causes of foot cramps, such as nutritional deficiencies and medication side effects.

People who develop foot cramps after starting a new medication should discuss this and any other side effects with their doctor.

A person should not stop taking prescription medication without first consulting a healthcare professional.

Foot cramps at night can cause significant pain that may affect a person’s quality of sleep.

People who experience frequent foot cramps that impact their sleep or daily lives may want to speak with a doctor about possible causes.

People can also discuss treatment options with a doctor if their foot cramps do not improve after trying at-home methods.

If nocturnal foot cramps do not improve after 2 weeks, a person should see their doctor.

People can treat most causes of nocturnal foot cramps with rest and at-home treatments, such as stretching and making dietary changes.

People who experience severe or persistent foot cramps may want to speak with a doctor about possible treatment strategies.

Muscle relaxants and topical pain relievers may help reduce painful muscle cramps. A doctor may also recommend wearing different shoes or using shoe inserts for extra arch support.