Each of your feet contains 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than one hundred muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The skeletal structure of your foot is similar to that of your hand, but it is stronger, and its movements are more limited because it bears more weight. Your foot bones fall into three groups: tarsal bones, metatarsal bones, and phalanges.
There are seven tarsal bones, namely calcaneus (heel bone), talus (ankle bone), cuboid, navicular, and the medial, intermediate, and lateral cuneiforms. These bones make up the rear section of your foot. There are five metatarsal bones, which are tubular and sit in a row in the middle of the foot. They are numbered one to five; number one sits behind the big toe while number five sits behind the little toe.
As for the phalanges, these are bones in your toes. Each of your toes except the big toe contains three phalanges, i.e., from the back of the foot to the front: proximal, middle, and distal phalanges.
Your big toe (hallux) only contains the distal and proximal phalanges. Now, the bones and joints in your feet experience everyday wear and tear, which can result in common foot problems. And in this article, we will discuss one such condition, toe cramps.
Causes of toe cramps
According to Charles Kim, a musculoskeletal rehab specialist, toe cramps are “usually a warning that you’re overdoing it.” But aside from overexertion, there are various possible triggers for toe cramps, including:
The amount of water you lose should at least equal the amount of water you gain lest you become dehydrated. And when this happens, it creates an imbalance of electrolytes, such as sodium, magnesium, and potassium, in your muscles.
Electrolytes are responsible for stimulating muscle contractions, so an imbalance may cause the muscles around your toes to contract uncontrollably.
Not everyone who is dehydrated gets a muscle cramp. Dehydration is most likely to cause toe or foot cramps when the respective muscles are already injured or overexerted.
Tight or weak muscles
Tightness in the foot and toe muscles, which power their movement and play a vital role in balance, can cause muscle cramps.
Lack of exercise is a leading cause of muscle weakness and tension. Exercise helps keep your muscles healthy and flexible as well as improve balance.
It also enhances the functioning of your nervous system, which regulates contractions hence preventing or minimizing muscle spasms.
A 2018 study found that about 68% to 72% of the participants were wearing shoes that do not match the length and width of their feet.
Wearing loose or tight shoes or shoes whose shape does not fit the shape of your feet, such as pointy-toed shoes, forces your feet and toes into an awkward position, negatively impacting their function. Consequently, they rebel by cramping up. Poorly fitting shoes can also cause muscle injuries.
Neuropathy (peripheral neuropathy) is damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves in your body’s extremities, such as the hands and feet.
It typically results in numbness, muscle weakness, cramping, tingling, and pain in the affected areas.
Diabetes is a common cause of peripheral neuropathy; more than half the people with diabetes develop a type of neuropathy. Other medical conditions that can cause nerve damage include:
- Infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, Lyme disease, and shingles
- Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome
- Hereditary disorders such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease
- Tumors, be they malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous)
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
Note: Alcoholism, exposure to toxins, and certain medications can also cause peripheral neuropathy.
Older persons’ muscle tissues contain less water content. And since about 75% of muscle content is water, water loss can be expected to affect muscle strength and function.
As a result, you may experience muscle contractions and tightness in the muscles around your feet and toes.
How can I relieve toe and foot cramps?
If you are experiencing frequent toe and foot cramps, you can get rid of them and prevent future occurrences by:
- Staying hydrated. Drinking plenty of water creates a balance of electrolytes, especially after exercising since you sweat out the minerals your muscles need in the process.
- Wearing shoes that are a good fit as fitting shoes allow your feet to move and function normally.
- Stretching frequently; try flexing your feet and spreading out your toes and arching them back as far as you can 5 to 10 times. Then stretch your ankles and feet by rotating them clockwise then counterclockwise 5 to 10 times.
- Eating healthy since a well-balanced diet ensures your body gets the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed to function optimally.
- Massaging your feet and legs as it may help reduce muscle cramps. Start gently then gradually increase the pressure.
- Exercising regularly, but in moderation to avoid putting unnecessary stress on the muscles of your feet and toes. Being inactive atrophies muscles and causes poor circulation. And when there is not enough blood flow to your feet or toes, they may spasm. Exercising helps strengthen the muscles of your legs, feet, and toes. Moreover, it keeps your muscles, joints, tendon, and nerves functioning properly.
Exercises to alleviate toe cramps
Some of the exercises you can do to get relief from toe cramps include:
- Calf and soleus stretches
- The plantar fascia toe stretch
- Ankle strengthening exercises
- Foot strengthening exercises
- Balance exercises
- Flexibility exercises
Note: Consult your physical therapist or doctor before starting any exercise routine for toe cramps.
As mentioned earlier, toe and foot cramps may be as a result of an underlying medical condition like diabetic neuropathy and MS. It’s, therefore, advisable to visit your doctor if you are having toe and foot cramps. More so if they get worse or do not reduce over time.
However, as far as treatment for toe cramps goes, an orthopedic physiotherapist can offer you more options. The reason being, orthopedic PTs are trained to diagnose, manage, and treat disorders and injuries of the musculoskeletal system.
They can, therefore, devise a treatment strategy to not only help relieve your toe cramps but also to prevent future episodes from occurring.
- Zawn Villines, Causes and home remedies for toe cramps, October 11, 2018.
- Brett Sears, Richard N. Fogoros, MD, 5 Reasons Your Toes Cramp, October 06, 2019.
- Charlotte Lillis, Foot bones: Everything you need to know, January 31, 2019.
- Jordan Davidson, 5 Reasons Your Toes Keep Cramping, 15 May 2017