Charley Horse

By Joe Stubits, PTA

Charley Horse is a common description of a sudden muscle spasm or involuntary muscle contraction. When a muscle abruptly contracts on its own, it can be very painful. A Charley Horse can happen in the body however most commonly occur in your legs. Charley Horses are usually able to be managed at home especially if they occur infrequently. However, frequent spasms can be associated with an underlying health condition that needs medical attention. If you are experiencing frequent Charley Horses it is advised to see your doctor to help determine the cause.

Image of a woman grabbing her calf while having a painful Charley Horse at night in bed

What Triggers a Charley Horse?

Things that can trigger a Charley Horse include:

  • Inadequate blood flow – The arteries that supply blood to your legs can become narrow which can cause a charley horse, cramp, in your legs and feet while exercising. These kinds of charley horses usually subside after rest
  • Nerve compression – If the nerves originating from the lumbar spine ( low back ) are being compressed it can produce a charley horse in your legs. Walking for long periods of time can increase discomfort with this kind of charley horse.
  • Overuse of muscle
  • Muscle strain or holding a position for an extended amount of time
  • Tight muscle
  • Being active in high temperatures
  • Dehydration
  • Mineral deficiency
  • An insufficient amount of potassium, calcium or magnesium can contribute to a charley horse
  • Side effects from medication
  • Diuretics, a medication commonly used for high blood pressure, can deplete potassium, calcium or magnesium

How do you Relieve a Muscle Cramp?

To help relieve a the painful spasm, you want to try to stretch the affected muscle. For example, if your calf muscle (muscle at the back of lower leg ) is the muscle experiencing the spasm, you should flex your foot upwards. You can also try to get the muscle to relax by massaging, using a heating pad or taking a warm bath with Epsom salts.  Stretching the muscle can also help relieve the symptoms. To help manage the pain after the charley horse has subsided you can use an ice pack or use over the counter medication like ibuprofen or naproxen.

Image of a man stretching the right calf to relieve a charley horse by JOI Rehab

Hold the stretch 3o seconds, 3X to help relieve a Charley Horse in the Calf

How Long Does a Charley Horse Last?

Charley Horses usually are brief and only last a few seconds however they can last up to fifteen minutes. In most cases, the spasm forcefully, painfully contract the muscle without any lasting discomfort. In other cases, however, the charley horse can be extremely painful and can cause discomfort for days.

What Causes a Charley Horse at Night?

It is not fully understood as to why charley horses happen at night time. Some believe it could be the result from lying in bed in an awkward position for a long period of time. And it should be noted that even though the charley horses and restless leg syndrome symptoms both have a tendency of happening at night, they are not the same. Restless Leg Syndrome causes discomfort in legs and an intense urge to move legs.

Related Links:

If you have and injury, JOI can help! To schedule an appointment with a JOI Orthopedic Doctor, call (904)JOI-2000, schedule on line, or click the link below. T0 see a JOI Rehab Therapist in one of our convenient locations, call (904)858-7045.

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