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Ouch, I Have a Charley Horse!

By Chris Leahy, PA-C
Orthopedic and Reconstructive Surgery

Chances are, you’ve had a sudden muscle cramp, often referred to as a “charley horse.” This type of cramp usually affects the calf muscle, the foot, or your thigh muscle. Although they are most often harmless, muscle cramps can be quite painful and force you to stop the activity you are engaged in.

Long periods of exercise or overexertion can bring on a muscle cramp, which is why runners and athletes often get them. They can also occur at night while you are sleeping. Some other causes of a charley horse include: lack of hydration, nutrition problems, not stretching before exercise, and medication side effects. They tend to occur more frequently as we age.

Here’s some simple ways to deal with a charley horse:

  • If you get a sudden cramp while lying down, try to stand up and put some weight on the leg that’s affected. This can often alleviate the cramping.
  • Use a heating pad to help increase blood circulation to the muscle, which can help relax it.
  • If your cramp persists, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen for relief.

Fortunately, a typical charley horse usually goes away on its own. The sudden, painful spasm normally lasts less than ten minutes although pain and tenderness can linger for several hours.  You only need to see a medical provider for this problem if the following apply to you:

  • You have severe discomfort for a prolonged period
  • The cramp is associated with leg swelling, redness or skin changes
  • Muscle weakness occurs
  • It becomes a frequent problem
  • You believe it’s being caused by a medication
  • There is no improvement with self-care

How to prevent muscle cramps:

Although there is no sure-fire way to prevent muscle cramps from occurring, the stretches outlined below can help. It’s a good idea to do these stretches before running, jogging, and other strenuous activities.

Calf Stretch:

  1. Stand with your palms placed against a wall, with arms stretched out.
  2. Step back with the leg of affected calf.
  3. Lean forward on your other leg and push against the wall. You should feel a stretch in your calf muscle and the back of your leg.

Towel Stretch:

  1. Keep your legs outstretched in front of you.
  2. Point the toes of your affected foot at the ceiling.
  3. Take a towel or piece of rope and wrap it around your foot, holding it with both hands.
  4. Lift the leg slightly until you feel a good stretch.

In case you are wondering, it is believed the term “charley horse” originated in the 1880s when baseball players named their painful leg cramps after a lame horse named Charley that helped the groundkeepers where the Chicago White Sox played baseball.

Although getting a charley horse might be painful, with a little help from the advice above it shouldn’t hold you back from the activities you enjoy.

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