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Everything you need to know about a charley horse | BY HEIDI


 


A charley horse refers to a muscle cramp that is sudden and painful. It often occurs during exercise and at night. It commonly affects the calf muscle at the back of the lower leg but can also occur in the foot and, occasionally, the thigh.


These muscle contractions may also affect pregnant people and individuals with certain health conditions. Leg cramps affect around a third of people aged over 50Trusted Source years.


Causes


Possible causes of muscle cramps include the following:


Nocturnal leg cramps may have their origins in strenuous daytime activity, perhaps along with electrolyte imbalances and the use of some medications.

Weight gain, blood flow disruption, and peripheral nerve compression may cause muscle cramps during pregnancy.

Neurological changes, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances may cause cramps during or after exercise, especially in the arms or legs.

Vs. cramps

Charley horse is another term for cramps, especially those that affect the leg.


Although some people may use charley horse to describe muscle spasms or twitches, these phenomena are very different.



dystonia, a movement disorder involving involuntary movements

myotonia, the process of muscles tensing, including both voluntarily flexing and involuntary contracting

tetany, an electrolyte imbalance due to low levels of calcium

myalgia, or muscle aches


Symptoms



For most people, the muscle contracts painfully without lasting problems. For others, however, the cramps can be extremely painful and cause discomfort for days.


A cramp can have different effects depending on its location. Painful leg cramps can make it more difficult to walk, for instance.


Stomach cramps, by contrast, can lead to feelings of discomfort, which may dissuade some people from eating.


Additionally, a cramp’s timing can affect its significance. For example, if leg cramps frequently happen at night, sleep disruption can result.


Risk factors

As a 2021 reviewTrusted Source explains, there are several risk factors for leg cramps:


Being over 60: Nocturnal leg cramps affect around 37%Trusted Source of Americans over 60 years of age.

Being pregnant: Muscle cramps affect around 50%Trusted Source of pregnant individuals, especially at night.

Having chronic renal failure: Around 50%Trusted Source of people with chronic renal failure experience muscle cramps, especially in the legs.

Having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): People with ALS have a 95%Trusted Source chance of experiencing muscle cramps.

Acute calf pain can also happen for reasons not related to cramps. These include:


trauma

deep vein thrombosis

a ruptured Baker’s cyst


cardiovascular diseases, including coronary artery disease and high blood pressure

kidney diseases and treatments, including uremia and dialysis

neurological conditions, such as motor neuron disease and polio

musculoskeletal problems, including arthritis

metabolic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and thyroid problems

Drugs and muscle cramps

Some drugs can increase the risk of leg cramps. These include statins, which help lower cholesterol, and diuretics, which help with high blood pressure.


The use of some stimulants, such as amphetamines and caffeine, could also lead to a charley horse or leg cramp.


Anyone who has a problem with leg cramps after taking prescription drugs may want to speak with a doctor or pharmacist who can advise about changing the medication.


However, it is also important not to stop taking a drug without speaking to a health professional first.


Anyone who notices an increase in the frequency or severity of muscle cramps should contact a doctor, as they may have an underlying problem that needs addressing.


Diagnosis

When a person visits a doctor about a charley horse problem, the doctor may ask about their symptoms, including:


what the cramping is like and where it occurs

when the cramps happen, how often, and for how long

how severe the cramps are

whether they have started recently

what the person’s exercise habits are like

whether the person has other symptoms, medical problems, or is on any medication



Treatment



When a person experiences a charley horse, the following action may help them find some relief:


Gently stretch out the muscle by standing or moving the limb or foot.

Firmly but gently pull the toes and the foot upward to the front of the leg.

Repeat these movements until the cramping eases and stops.

Some people find that massaging the cramped muscle brings relief.


If there are signs that an underlying problem may be causing the cramps, a doctor can suggest further tests. If the person is taking a drug that increases the chance of cramping, a doctor may change this or the dosage.


Natural remedies and prevention

To prevent a charley horse or muscle cramp from occurring, a person might try the following:


leaving sufficient time between eating and exercising

warming up before and after exercise by gently stretching muscles

drinking fluids and eating a little food after exercise to replace fluid and minerals

keeping hydrated by drinking enough water at all times

avoiding caffeine and other stimulants

monitoring any possible side effects of prescription drugs


Changes that may help, although there is no scientific evidence to support them, include:


relaxation, massage, and heat therapy

changing to different footwear

maintaining a moderate weight

physical exercise for those with a sedentary lifestyle

Why is a cramp called a charley horse?

Although the origin of the term is uncertain, sources indicate that using the term charley horse to describe a muscle cramp comes from informal American sporting talk dating back to the 1880s.


One theory is that the term comes from a baseball player talking about a lame horse. Horses used to help with groundskeeper jobs in baseball.


Another story, which appeared in the Washington Post in 1907, claimed that the name came from a baseball pitcher called Charley, who had muscle cramps during games in 1880.


Charley horses are not specifically related to baseball and can occur during any exercise.

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