in German, komuragaeri
in Japanese, paralítica
in Portuguese – many cultures and languages have a name for a specific type of pain in the calf or foot muscles. In the U.S., we know it as a charley horse.
What is a charley horse?
A charley horse is an involuntary (and painful) muscle spasm or cramp that can occur anywhere in the body; however, the ones in the legs and feet tend to be the worst. It’s common and somewhat mysterious, and occurs when a muscle contracts and becomes stiff without being able to relax. Many people experience these pains at night while sleeping, though a charley horse can occur at any time day or night.
What causes a charley horse?
There is no one specific cause for muscle cramps. Common causes include:
- Nutrition problems – imbalances of electrolytes, potassium, calcium, and magnesium mean your muscles aren’t getting the nutrients that help them contract and relax appropriately
- Not stretching enough – this is especially important before and after a workout. Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, so they’re less likely to stiffen without being able to relax
- Overexertion – using your muscles harder than usual or experiencing muscle fatigue can cause your muscles to seize up into a cramp
- Poor circulation – this is usually the culprit if you get muscle cramps while walking; if your muscles don’t get an adequate blood supply, they can’t relax properly
- Awkward positions – sitting in an awkward position for too long, or even wearing shoes that restrict your circulation or require a specific posture (looking at you, high heels) can cause your muscles to retain their tension even after you’ve moved out of the uncomfortable position
Other risk factors include:
How can you treat a charley horse?
- Age – older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily
- Pregnancy – muscle cramps are more common during pregnancy
- Medical conditions – certain medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, nerve, liver, or thyroid disorders) and medications can cause muscle cramps as a side effect
To stop a charley horse, you have to get the tensed muscle to relax. Stretching exercises are the most effective way to relieve them – gently stretching the tensed muscle back out until it releases its tension will get rid of the cramp. Using a heating pad or soaking the affected area in a warm tub of Epsom salt can help the muscle to relax. If the pain isn’t resolved quickly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen, may also help.
Basic calf stretch
This calf stretch is commonly used by runners. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand with your palms placed against a wall, with arms stretched out
- Step back with leg of affected calf
- Lean forward on the other leg and push against the wall - you should feel a stretch in your calf muscle and the back of the leg.
Do this stretch while you sit:
How can you prevent charley horses?
- Keep legs outstretched in front of you
- Point the toes of your affected foot at the ceiling so that the leg is engaged
- Take a towel or neck tie and wrap it around your foot, holding it with both hands
- Lift the leg slightly until you feel a good stretch
The easiest ways to prevent a charley horse are:
- Be sure to stay hydrated
- Eat a variety of foods with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables to be sure you are getting enough nutrients in your diet. Consider adding a post-workout banana break to your routine to keep your potassium levels up
- Stretch before and after every workout
- Incorporate strength training into your exercise routine to strengthen your muscles
- Pace yourself during workouts so as to not overtire your muscles
Charley horses are as mysterious as they are painful, but these common muscle cramps can be resolved with a few self-care prevention and treatment tips. However, if you experience more intense cramps that last for 5-10 minutes, or occur multiple times a week, you should contact your physician.