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Don’t Let Foot Cramps and Charley Horses Slow You Down

You’re sound asleep, and then, without warning, you wake up with a paralyzing stiffness in your calf or foot.

Whether you call it a foot or leg cramp (aka “charley horse”), it’s a common, somewhat mysterious pain that happens when a muscle gets involuntarily stiff and can’t relax.

“They tend to happen more frequently as we age,” says sports and exercise medicine physician Kim Gladden, MD. “While they can be uncomfortable, they are rarely harmful.”

Here’s what causes these cramps, as well as tips to help prevent them.

7 common causes for cramps

Whether day or night, your foot and calf muscles can spasm or cramp. This can happen to various muscles — not just in the legs or feet — though these cramps are often most uncomfortable.

Causes for muscle cramps include:

  1. Lack of hydration.“If you are experiencing cramping, it’s important to look at your hydration first,” Dr. Gladden says. You want to make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day.
  2. Problems with nutrition. While a balance of electrolytes (calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium) is essential for the contraction and relaxation of a muscle, it’s best not to simply self-treat with supplements. “Taking excess supplements if you don’t need them can be harmful,” Dr. Gladden says. Instead, she suggests eating a variety of foods with plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables. This includes leafy greens and fruits, including bananas, to add a balance of electrolytes to you diet.
  3. Side effect of medication. Some medications such as statins and furosemide (Lasix®) can also cause muscle cramps. A tip-off is when cramps start suddenly after you begin taking a new medication. If this happens, see your practitioner.
  4. Not stretching enough. Taking time to stretch each day, including after a brief warm up or after a shower can help. “You want your muscles to be as strong and supple as they can be. Adequate stretching after a brief warm-up period is key to this,” Dr. Gladden says.
  5. Overexertion. If you exercise harder than usual or experience muscle fatigue, this can cause cramps. Pace yourself.
  6. Poor circulation. If you have cramping that increases when you walk, it could be a problem with your circulation. “Some circulation problems cause pain that feels like cramping. If it gets worse when you walk, or if you have cramps that just don’t stop, definitely see your doctor,” Dr. Gladden says.
  7. The wrong shoes. A less-known cause for muscle cramping: your shoes. “You want to look at your shoes, especially if you changed from flats to heels. This also can cause cramps,” Dr. Gladden says.

How to stop leg and foot cramps

There are some simple ways to respond to leg and foot cramps:

  • If it happens while you are lying down or in bed, try to simply stand up and put some weight on the affected leg or foot. This can sometimes be enough to stop that tender stiffness.
  • Use warmth/heating pads to increase blood circulation to the muscle and to relax it. Soaking in a warm tub of Epsom salt can also help ease the tension.
  • For more stubborn pain, you can try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen.

Easy stretches to keep calves and feet happy

Here are some simple stretches that can help stop pain and prevent it.

Basic calf stretch

This calf stretch is commonly used by runners. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand with your palms placed against a wall, with arms stretched out
  2. Step back with leg of affected calf
  3. Lean forward on the other leg and push against the wall

You should feel a stretch in your calf muscle and the back of the leg.

Towel stretch

Do this stretch while you sit:

  1. Keep legs outstretched in front of you
  2. Point the toes of your affected foot at the ceiling so that the leg is engaged
  3. Take a towel or neck tie and wrap it around your foot, holding it with both hands
  4. Lift the leg slightly until you feel a good stretch

Keep cramps from happening again

Here are some tips to prevent leg cramps:

  • Stay well hydrated
  • Stretch each day, especially before you exercise
  • Limit or avoid alcohol
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes natural sources of calcium, potassium and magnesium
  • Increase your activity level gradually

If leg or foot cramps are occasional occurrences, you can generally manage them yourself. However, if they happen frequently, are severe, or if you are concerned any of your medications are the culprit, talk to your doctor. They could signal a medical problem that requires treatment.


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Practice Policy Update Regarding COVID-19

Dear Patients:

Our patients, employees and family are our top priority at Long Island Spine Specialists, P.C.

We ask you to not visit any of our locations if you have symptoms such as fever, sneezing, coughing and possible shortness of breath.

Please cancel your appointment and re-schedule once you are feeling better and are no longer suffering with symptoms.

Only non-symptomatic patients will be seen. No exceptions.

Accompanying family members – including children – are asked to remain in the waiting area and will not be allowed to enter the exam rooms.

During this time of high concern regarding the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) we are taking extra precautions to maintain the highest possible standards of safety and cleanliness. Please be advised that we are carefully following recommendations from both the CDC and WHO and are here to help guide you through this time if needed.

Some steps we are taking to keeping safe:

  1. We know how important cleanliness is and always maintain the highest standards of cleanliness. To further offer you peace of mind, we have increased the frequency of the cleaning of our office.
  2. Rest assured that hand washing is strictly followed. Hand sanitizer is available to all staff and patients.
  3. Additionally, if you have recently traveled to a country with high rates of the coronavirus or have been on a cruise, please reschedule your visit for at least 14 days from your return date. We will gladly accommodate your needs to reschedule. At that time, a telehealth interface can be arranged if necessary.

Find up-to-date and accurate information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and feel free to reach out with questions.

- Your team at Long Island Spine Specialists, P.C.

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