This Is Why You Get Painful Toe Cramps—and How to Find Relief

Here's what you can do to prevent and soothe pesky toe cramps.

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Many of us have experienced cramps in our legs and feet. But when those cramps work their way down to our toes, they can be incredibly painful—or at the very least, tedious. "A toe cramp can [make you] feel like your feet and/or toes are in a vice," says Brad Schaeffer, DPM, a New York City-based podiatrist. "Most muscle cramps are harmless, but when they tighten and pull, it can feel like an emergency."

Most of the time, muscle cramps go away on their own. But why do they happen in the first place? And what can you do to relieve a cramp the next time you get one? We talked to a couple of experts to find out.

How and Why Toe Cramps Occur

Cramps happen when one of your muscles suddenly and involuntarily contracts. These cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. As anyone who's experienced a cramp knows all too well, they can be incredibly painful. "A cramp is when the muscle contracts, but does not immediately relax," Dr. Schaeffer explains. "This can be very painful, and usually only lasts a few seconds."

It can come from muscles around the foot or in the foot.

Toe cramps, specifically, tend to be the result of muscle contractions in your feet or legs. "When someone experiences a toe cramp, it may be stemming from contractions of [leg] muscles [that] insert into their feet and toes," says Jack Levenson, DPM, attending physician at the Foot and Ankle Surgeons of New York.

"On the other hand, it may [stem from a] contraction of [foot] muscles [that] inserts into the toes," he adds.

Common Causes of Toe Cramps

The scientific community isn't entirely sure what causes muscle cramps, but they do have a few ideas.

Inadequate Hydration

One of the most commonly cited causes of toe cramps is dehydration. But some research suggests that the truth is a bit messier than that. Some cases of muscle cramps can be linked to dehydration, but others are more consistent with overhydration—and a subsequent lack of electrolytes.

Nutrient Deficiency

There's some thinking that nutrient deficiencies may cause muscle cramps. "The most common nutritional deficiencies that lead to cramping are lack of adequate B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and sodium," Dr. Levenson says.

Muscle Strain or Overuse

Some research has linked intense exercise to muscle cramps. There are still questions about why this happens—and why it affects some people and not others. But overexertion is widely recognized as one of the most common (potential) causes of muscle cramps.

Lack of Exercise

Interestingly, lack of exercise is also recognized as a common cause of muscle cramps. This is because inadequate blood flow is thought to cause muscle cramps, and regular exercise can improve circulation.

Uncomfortable Shoes

Ill-fitting shoes—especially shoes that are too tight—may keep your blood from flowing the way it should. Shoes that don't properly support your feet could cause muscles in your feet and legs to work harder than they're used to. Since either of these elements—inadequate blood flow or muscle fatigue—could potentially cause cramps, your footwear may be to blame for your pain.

Medical Conditions

Many different medical conditions have been linked to muscle cramps. These include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and more.


Muscle cramps are common in pregnancy. Reportedly, about half of all pregnant people experience them.

How to Relieve Toe Cramps

Toe cramps tend to subside within a few seconds—or at the most, within a few minutes—but there are some steps you can take to relieve them a little faster.

Stretch or massage your foot.

If your foot is cramping, try stretching or massaging it slowly. "When stretching the toe, please do not pull the toe in a jerking motion," Dr. Schaeffer says. "That could cause a muscle injury." Instead, try slowly pulling your toe to stretch it, or massage your foot by gently rolling it over a round object (like a golf ball).

Use a warm compress.

Using a hot compress may help relax your foot and alleviate your cramp.

Drink some water.

Since dehydration is thought to cause muscle cramps, a glass of water may be just what the doctor ordered.

Eat something.

Remember that dehydration isn't the only thing linked to muscle cramps—low electrolytes and nutrients are, too. So try to get your electrolyte levels up by eating a quick snack. Dr. Schaeffer specifically recommends eating a banana.

Take off your shoes.

If your shoes are so tight or uncomfortable that you're getting a cramp, consider taking them off and giving your feet a little room to breathe.

Walk around.

If you've been sitting all day, stand up and walk around for a bit. It may hurt to stand on cramping toes, but getting your blood flowing may help alleviate your cramp.

How to Prevent Toe Cramps

There are also some steps you can take to prevent toe cramps before you start experiencing one.

Exercise regularly.

Exercise can help you keep your body in tip-top shape. Just be sure not to push it too hard, because overexertion is linked to muscle cramps.

Stretch often.

Be sure to stretch before and after exercise. And if there's a time of day you tend to experience cramps (like bedtime), stretch around then, too.

Build in recovery time.

Rest and recovery can be just as important as a solid workout, so be sure your fitness routine is balanced. Alleviate tight muscles with heat, and relieve sore muscles with ice.

Drink plenty of water daily.

Staying hydrated is always a good idea. And since dehydration may be linked to muscle cramps, drinking enough water could help you keep those pesky cramps away.

Eat a well-balanced diet.

Remember that electrolyte deficiencies have been linked to muscle cramps, so be sure you're getting enough vitamins and minerals—especially if you're working out frequently.

Wear supportive shoes.

If your shoes are tight or comfortable, consider swapping them out for a better-fitting and more supportive pair—especially if your shoes are so uncomfortable that they're causing your feet to cramp.

When to See a Doctor About Toe Cramps

If you're experiencing muscle cramps frequently or if your muscle cramps are lasting for long periods of time, consider talking to a doctor. The cramps may be a symptom of an underlying health condition, or they could be a sign that the dosage of a medication you're taking needs adjustment.

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  3. Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Muscle cramping during exercise: Causes, solutions, and questions remainingSports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 2):115-124. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01162-1

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