FYI: Is There Any Way to Prevent Toe Cramps?

Toe Cramps

Young woman's feetSuperstock/Getty Images

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: All muscles are capable of cramping, but the ones farthest away from your spinal cord—in your feet and lower legs, for example—tend to be the most vulnerable to seizing up. The long, spindly nerve cells that run from the spinal cord to the toes are especially prone to damage. The prevalence of nerve damage increases with age, so the elderly are among the most common victims.

Once these cells start to malfunction, they're more likely to erupt with abnormal, spontaneous electrical signals, leading to unwanted muscle contractions.

Toe cramps, like their more painful analogues in the calf, are associated with conditions other than aging as well. Yet despite their prevalence, few successful remedies have been found. "A lot of treatments have been used in the past," says Stanford University neurologist Yuen So. Among the oldest is quinine, the malaria-fighting drug that gives tonic water its bite. A tablet before bed can have a small effect on nighttime cramping—however, the FDA now discourages its use because of rare, but very serious, side effects, such as low blood platelet counts. Other options include vitamin B complex and magnesium, but nothing has been proven effective. "There isn't a gold standard out there," So says.

The most common prescription for cramps doesn't involve any drugs at all. Doctors often tell patients to try stretching, which can help to relax a muscle that has tightened up. Whether this has any prophylactic benefit (especially for toes) is another story: "Does stretching before you go to bed lower your risk of waking up in the middle of the night with cramps?" asks So. "I don't think that has been proven yet."

Have a burning science question you'd like to see answered in our FYI section? Email it to fyi@popsci.com.