Charley Horse

What is a charley horse?

Charley horse is another name for a muscle spasm. Charley horses can occur in virtually any muscle, but they are most common in the legs. These spasms are marked by extremely uncomfortable muscle contractions.

The contracting muscles don’t relax for several seconds or more, and the pain can be severe. Charley horses that are severe enough can result in the muscle being sore for a few hours or even a day. This is normal, as long as the pain isn’t prolonged or recurring.

Charley horses are generally treatable at home, especially if they are infrequent. However, frequent muscle spasms are often linked to underlying health conditions that need medical treatment. Your doctor can help you determine the cause of frequent charley horses. And you can implement treatments and preventive measures to increase your overall comfort.

What causes a charley horse?

A number of factors may cause a muscle to cramp or spasm. The most common causes of charley horses include:

  • inadequate blood flow to the muscle
  • muscle injuries
  • exercising in excessive heat or cold
  • overuse of a specific muscle during exercise
  • stress, most often in the neck muscles
  • not stretching before exercise
  • nerve compression in the spine
  • taking diuretics, which can lead to low potassium levels
  • mineral depletion, too little calcium, potassium, and sodium in the blood
  • dehydration

Many people experience charley horses during sleeping hours and are awakened because of them. Muscle spasms that cause charley horses while we sleep are common, but are not entirely understood. It’s thought that part of the reason they occur so frequently during sleep is the result of a person lying in an awkward position for a long period of time that can cause a muscle spasm.

Risk factors for charley horses

Muscle spasms can happen to anyone, at any age. And a charley horse can occur at any time of the day or night.

Charley horses do tend to occur more often among people in the following groups:

  • athletes
  • infants
  • older adults
  • people who are obese
  • people taking certain medications like diuretics, Evista, or statin drugs
  • people who smoke

People who are obese are more likely to experience charley horses because of poor circulation in their legs. Athletes often experience charley horses because of muscle fatigue or overuse.

Diagnosing the cause of frequent charley horses

The occasional charley horse doesn’t require an official medical diagnosis. However, your doctor should investigate frequent, recurrent muscle spasms. This would apply if a charley horse occurs more than once a week without an adequate explanation. A diagnosis is generally obtained through a history and physical examination.

MRI scans may be helpful in determining whether nerve compression is the cause of frequent charley horses. An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create a detailed image of your body’s internal structures. Laboratory work may also be necessary to rule out low potassium, calcium, or magnesium levels.

If your doctor suspects that nerve damage or other complex causes are to blame, you may be referred to a physical therapist or other specialist.

Treatment for a charley horse

The treatment for charley horses depends on their underlying cause. If a charley horse is exercise-induced, simple stretches and massages can help relax the muscle and stop it from contracting. Heating pads can accelerate the relaxation process, while an ice pack can help numb the pain. If your muscle is still sore, your doctor may recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen.

Recurrent charley horses require more aggressive treatment. Pain medications may be prescribed if ibuprofen isn’t enough to ease your discomfort. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antispasmodic medication. Physical therapy can help you cope with muscle spasms and prevent further complications.

In extreme cases, surgery may be recommended. When all other treatments have failed, surgery can be used to enlarge the space around a nerve to relieve pressure. If your spasms are caused by nerve compression, this may help.

Alternative treatments

When experiencing a charley horse, there are certain massages and stretches that can both provide immediate relief and prevent potential pain.

During a charley horse, you can use your hands to apply pressure to the site of the cramp to relieve pain. You can also try using both of your thumbs to gradually apply pressure to the site of the cramp until the pain goes away.

If your charley horse is located in your leg you can try to relieve the pain by doing the following stretches:

  • standing up
  • stepping the leg that isn’t experiencing muscle cramping forward into a lunge
  • straightening the back leg that is experiencing the cramp, and lunge forward on the front leg

You can also stand on the tips of your toes for a few seconds at a time to stretch your calf muscles.

Preventing charley horse

Once you have identified the cause of the occasional charley horse, the symptoms are generally easy to prevent. Take these steps to help avoid future muscle spasms:

  • stretch before and after exercise
  • avoid exercising the same muscles on consecutive days
  • do not exercise in severe weather
  • drink water throughout the day
  • drink beverages that contain electrolytes, such as Gatorade
  • stretch before going to bed

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