Everything you Need to Know about Charley Horses and Muscle Cramps

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The sudden, extreme pain that can awaken someone from a deep slumber is commonly referred to as a charley horse.

Although it can be experienced at any time, the experience can be jarring – leaving some to be concerned of a major medical ailment and unsure of what to do about it.

Fortunately, this is a common problem for people of all ages and health outcomes. Technically, a charley horse is a muscle cramp or muscle spasm.

Muscle cramps primarily develop as a result of inflammation or injury, but the reasons for it vary from dietary to activity-related problems.

Although it is possible for a charley horse to indicate a more serious medical condition, it typically emanates from lifestyle choices that can change to reduce the frequency of muscle cramps. Stretches and the application of ice can soothe a muscle spasm when it is painful.

What is a charley horse?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a charley horse is a term for a muscle cramp or spasm.

These cramps often occur in the calves, other parts of the leg, abdomen, feet, arms, and hands. A charley horse is characterized by sudden pain due to cramps in the muscle tissue.

These muscle cramps can spasm for relatively short amounts of time and leave a dull, sore pain after the cramp passes.

While a charley horse is usually harmless, it is painful and signals a larger problem in the body that causes inflammation or tears in the muscle.

Charley horse and muscle cramping symptoms

Symptoms of muscle cramps and spasms include sudden and intense localized pain, usually in a major muscle group. The spasm often feels like the muscle is pulsing and tightening. According to the National Health Service of Scotland, once it passes, the muscle can be sensitive or painful.

Sometimes, although not always, the spasm in the muscle is noticeably visible. Cramping occurs at various extremes and more forceful cramping leads to more painful Charlie horses during and after the event.

Why are muscle cramps called Charley horses?

The etymology of the term “charley horse” is not completely clear, but there are two competing hypotheses.

One traces the phrase to horseracing in which a horse with a lame leg was called Charley. This epithet then transferred to humans who temporarily had a lame leg due to cramps.

The other scenario originates in baseball in which players would get cramps in their legs due to improper stretching or overuse.

Charley, in this story, comes from the name of a baseball pitcher. The exact origin of the term was lost in time.

Whether from horses or baseball, Charlie horses are still common among athletes as exercise can strain the muscle. The term has expanded to include anyone who suffers from these sporadic cramps.

How long does pain last after a Charlie horse?

While the pain is intense, a muscle spasm does not last for a prolonged period of time. A charley horse typically lasts a few seconds to a few minutes.

Frequent or prolonged muscle spasms beyond that time should be checked by a physician to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

Commonly a less intense amount of pain occurs after the spasms are complete. This can last for some time depending on the severity of the event.

According to Physiotherapist Jeannette Warr, it is also possible to create small muscle tears during violent muscle cramps leading to prolonged pain.

What causes a charley horse?

The Cleveland Clinic stipulates many different factors contributing to Charley horses from lifestyle choices to medical conditions.

Lifestyle choices stemming from diet and exercise can lead to causes rooted in dehydration, lack of stretching, nutritional deficiencies, or over-exercising.

Certain medications can make people more susceptible to muscle cramping as an unintended side effect.

Circulation disorders, such as peripheral artery disease, or physical problems that place pressure on the nerves, as in pinched nerves, also lead to muscle spasms.

Risk factors for Charley horses

Those most at risk for Charley horses include athletes, those with poor diets, and patients with circulatory or nerve conditions.

Improper exercise techniques or warm-ups increase the risk of muscle cramps, as does a lack of vitamins.

Increased age correlates with muscle stiffness and decreased circulation, putting people at higher risk of charlie horses.

According to Scientific American, over stimulation of “muscle spindles” from a lack of activity and weight gain increase the risk of muscle cramps.

Diagnosing the cause of frequent Charley horses

Frequent muscle cramping can be a symptom of untreated underlying causes, such as vitamin deficiency, or a more serious medical condition.

Only a doctor can diagnose the reason for frequent Charley horses by running tests depending on other symptoms present but can involve blood tests.

What causes a charley horse in your calf at night?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, nocturnal muscle cramps are due to the same reasons as cramps during the day; however, it can also be induced by inactivity during the day.

Persistent Charley horses at night can interrupt sleep and might require a visit to the doctor to root out the problem.

Alcohol consumption, neurological conditions, and problems with blood sugar regulation can also lead to cramps at night.

Certain sleeping positions can place more pressure on the nerves. Placing a pillow between the knees for side sleeping or under the knees in a back position reduces pressure.

Can a charley horse be a sign of a blood clot?

Although a muscle cramp is usually not serious, it can be a symptom of a blood clot.

The Atlantic cites muscle cramps as a sign of deep vein thrombosis, a condition in which a blood clot develops usually in the leg or the arm. Those with long-lasting cramps should see a doctor just in case.

What vitamin deficiency causes muscle cramps?

Cramps can be a sign of magnesium, potassium, vitamin D, and calcium deficiencies. Vitamins promote overall muscle health and function.

Vitamin D and calcium work together to contribute both healthy bones and muscles, with a deficiency leading to muscle weakness and cramps.

Magnesium is one of the most common associated with muscle cramps. The vitamin helps to induce the relay between the brain and muscular impulse.

When people have a magnesium deficiency, problems with this transmission can lead to problems with muscle spasms.

Foods like avocado and banana are rich in both magnesium and potassium, and mild contains high levels of vitamin D and calcium.

Dark leafy greens, tomatoes, citrus fruit, figs, and legumes are other common sources of these vitamins. Lacking a balanced diet, supplements can also be effective.

Is it possible to have Charley horses early in pregnancy?

Muscle cramps, especially in the legs and feet, are a common symptom during pregnancy.

According to Dr. Myra Wick at the Mayo Clinic, these cramps have the potential to increase in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

Although the exact cause of the increase in Charley horses during pregnancy is unknown, it could be due to a variety of factors due to the medical condition.

Expansion of the uterus and fetal weight could contribute to either a constriction in blood flow to the appendages or to spinal nerve pressure.

Pregnant individuals should try stretches and massages to decrease the pain from Charley horses.

Standing, flexing the foot with the heel toward the floor, or regularly massing legs and feet can help. Pregnant women can also use a chair for support while flexing.

An obstetrician and gynecologist explain the problem with muscle cramps during pregnancy and treatment options in this video from eHow.

Treatment options for those who are pregnant differ, and women should take the extra precautions outlined.

Why do I keep getting a charley horse in my legs?

Someone who keeps getting charlie horses in their legs likely is not stretching, sits for prolonged periods during the day, exercises to muscle exhaustion or has a nutritional issue that is not addressed – dehydration or vitamin deficiency.

People who are overweight, pregnant or elderly also commonly have more frequent muscle cramps.

Certain medicines list muscle cramps as a side effect, and it can be a warning of a more serious issue. Someone with frequent muscle cramps should see a physician.

Treatment for a charley horse

Treatment for a charley horse depends on the cause of the spasms. Sufferers solve dehydration by increasing water intake and decreasing caffeine and alcohol, substances that increase the risk of dehydration.

Vitamin deficiency treatment involves eating more vegetables, such as leafy greens and avocado.

It takes time for vitamins to build up in the body; therefore, a regular diet of magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium can help treat charlie horses in the long run.

Overuse of the muscle is best remedied with proper stretching and reducing physical activity to a level consistent with someone’s overall health.

Proper footwear like updated running shoes can lessen the pressure and wear on an athlete’s muscles and decrease cramping.

Immediate treatment includes stretching or flexing the afflicted muscle. For example, a cramping calf can be alleviated by putting the foot flat on the floor.

 Men’s Health Magazine suggests walking around to reduce pain in leg cramps.

Applying ice to inflamed muscles or heat to sore muscles reduces the pain in the cramp.

Ice should not make direct contact with the skin or remain on the skin for longer than twenty minutes at a time.

Likewise avoid direct contact with the skin with heat packs, especially at high temperatures.

Alternative treatments

The Farmers’ Almanac suggests body treatments as alternative treatments for Charley horses.

Massaging magnesium oil onto the effective area can be especially helpful in areas with recurring spasms. Baths with lavender or eucalyptus oil soothe sore muscles prone to spasm.

Ginger and turmeric can increase blood flow and act as an anti-inflammatory. These can be added as spices to food or taken as a supplement.

Chamomile, readily available in tea form, is a natural muscle relaxer that can ease muscle spasms.

How do you get rid of a charley horse?

Charley horses are common, and it is impossible to permanently prevent one from occurring.

Muscle cramps are temporary and pass on their own. Stretching, applying ice or heat, and massaging the afflicted area can help relieve any pain when one occurs.

Do bananas help with Charley horses?

If muscle cramps are due to a potassium deficiency, then consuming bananas regularly can reduce the risk of Charley horses.

As the specific cause could come from a variety of reasons, banana intake might not necessarily ease muscling spasms or cramping – only those rooted in potassium levels.

Preventing a charley horse

Prevention of a charley horse rests with drinking plenty of water, eating a balanced diet, taking a break from long periods of sitting, stretching before exercising, and avoiding over exercising.

This video from Livestrong provides a short introduction to dynamic stretching that can prevent a charley horse by warming up the muscles prior to physical activity and decreasing the risk of injury. Viewers can follow along with the exercises and do them before their next workout.

What is the final word on charlie horses?

While a charley horse is painful, it usually does not indicate a serious medical condition.

A charley horse is a colloquialism for a muscle cramp or spasm that can occur anywhere in the body but primarily in the legs, arms, feet, and abdomen.

Rooting out the cause of frequent muscle cramps involves considering the causes and risk factors to determine the likely source and taking preventative measures.

If the process of elimination does not work or other symptoms exist, then sufferers should visit a doctor for a diagnosis.

Immediate treatment involves flexing, stretching and massaging the muscle. Applying a compress to the area can relieve pain after the cramp or during a cramp that lasts several minutes.

Long-term solutions and preventative methods are best for relieving Charley horses, which includes examining lifestyle choices and making changes.