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Charley Horses: Causes, Solutions, and How to Prevent Them

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 3 Apr, 2023

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a sudden, intense pain in your leg? If so, you may have experienced a "charley horse," a type of muscle cramp that is common in both athletes and non-athletes alike. In this blog, we'll take a closer look at what causes a "charley horse," how they occur, and what you can do to prevent and treat them.

What is a Charley Horse?

A charley horse is a type of muscle cramp that usually happens in the calf muscle, but it can also happen in other muscles, like the quadriceps. Usually, a cramp is a sharp, sudden pain that can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Charley horses can be quite uncomfortable and even disrupt sleep or daily activities, depending on their severity.

Physiology of a Charley Horse

When the muscle fibers in a certain part of the body tighten and stay that way, this is called a "charley horse." This can be due to a number of factors, including overuse or strain of the muscle, dehydration, or an electrolyte imbalance. When this happens, the muscle can become stiff and painful, and it may be difficult to move or stretch the affected area.

When Can You Expect to Experience a Charlie Horse?

A charley horse can happen at any time, but may happen most often when you are active or when you are sleeping at night. Some common triggers for a charley horse include:

  • Overuse or strain of a muscle
  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Poor blood circulation
  • Inadequate stretching before physical activity
  • Certain medications
  • Medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or nerve damage

What Is the Cause of a Charley Horse?

The exact cause of a charley horse is not fully understood, but research suggests that a variety of factors may contribute to their development. One possible reason is that the muscle fibers get too excited, which makes them shorten and stay in that position. This can lead to a feeling of tightness and pain in the affected muscle.

Another possible explanation is that a charley horse may be related to an imbalance in the body's electrolytes, which are minerals that help regulate muscle contractions. When these minerals are out of balance, it can cause the muscles to contract in a strange way, which can lead to a charley horse.

Solutions for a Charley Horse

If you're experiencing a charley horse, there are a few things you can do to help alleviate the pain and prevent future occurrences. Here are five solutions for a charley horse:

Gently stretching the affected muscle can help to relieve the pain and reduce the risk of future charley horses. Try to hold the stretch for at least 20–30 seconds to allow the muscle fibers to fully lengthen.

Hydration - Ensuring that you are adequately hydrated can help to prevent charley horses, as dehydration can contribute to electrolyte imbalances that may trigger a cramp. Aim to drink at least 8-10 glasses of water per day, or more if you're physically active.

Massage - Massaging the affected muscle can help to relax the muscle fibers and reduce the pain associated with a charley horse. Use gentle pressure and circular motions to help release tension in the muscle.

Heat - Applying heat to the affected area can help to increase blood flow to the muscle and promote relaxation. You can use a heating pad, warm towel, or take a warm bath to help alleviate the pain.

Electrolyte Supplements - If you're experiencing frequent charley horses, it may be worth considering taking an electrolyte supplement. This can help to balance your body's electrolyte levels and reduce the risk of future cramps

Here are a few more things you might want to know about a charley horse:

  • A charley horse is generally harmless and will usually go away on their own within a few minutes. However, if you experience frequent or severe cramping, it may be a sign of an underlying medical condition that should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
  • While a charley horse is most commonly associated with physical activity, it can also occur as a result of prolonged sitting or standing in one position.
  • Certain lifestyle factors may increase your risk of experiencing a charley horse, such as smoking, alcohol use, and poor nutrition.
  • In some cases, medications such as diuretics or statins may increase the risk of developing a charley horse. If you're taking medication and experiencing frequent cramping, talk to your doctor to see if there is an alternative treatment available.
  • If you're experiencing a charley horse, it's important to avoid overstretching or putting too much pressure on the affected muscle, as this can exacerbate the pain and prolong the cramp.

By taking steps to avoid getting a charley horse and knowing what to do if you get one, you can reduce the pain and trouble they can cause. Whether you're an athlete or simply someone who wants to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle, understanding the causes and solutions for a charley horse can help you stay pain-free and active.


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  • Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Charley horse.
  • Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). How to prevent, treat, and recover from workout injuries.
  • Mayo Clinic. (2021). Muscle cramp.
  • Medical News Today. (2021). Charley horse: Causes, symptoms, and treatment.
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019). Muscle cramps fact sheet.
  • Tawatsupa, B., Yipintsoi, T., & Sriboonlue, P. (2019). Leg cramps: An update. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 62, 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jocn.2019.01.004
  • University of Michigan Medicine. (2021). Muscle cramps.

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