Charley Horse

What Is a Charley Horse?

A charley horse is a muscle spasm -- when a muscle suddenly tightens up on its own. These cramps can happen anywhere in your body. They’re common in your legs.

Charley Horse Causes

Things that can trigger a charley horse include:

Muscle cramps are also a side effect of some drugs, such as:

Charley Horse Risk Factors

Certain people tend to get charley horses more often:

Charley Horse Diagnosis

You don’t need to see your doctor unless you have a charley horse along with one of these conditions:

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll also do a physical exam. They might order blood tests, muscle tests, or MRI exams to look for a health condition that can cause cramps.

Charley Horse Treatment

If you get a charley horse in your calf or in the back of your thigh (hamstring), put your weight on the affected leg and bend your knee slightly. Or sit or lie down with your leg out straight and pull the top of your foot toward your head.

Continued

For a cramp in the front of your thigh (quadriceps), hold on to a chair and bend the knee of the affected leg. Pull your foot up toward your buttock.

Massage, a bath with Epsom salts, or a heating pad can relax the muscle. To fight pain, use an ice pack or take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or naproxen.

In most cases, the charley horse will stop within a few minutes. But if you get them often and for no clear reason, tell your doctor.

Charley Horse Prevention

To help stop cramps before they start:

  • Eat more foods high in vitamins and magnesium.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Stretch daily and before exercise. Stretching before exercise can help prevent tight muscles. Daily stretching can help with cramps caused by other things.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink.
  • Ramp up your exercise slowly rather than all at once.
  • Don’t exercise right after you eat.
  • Don’t smoke.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on March 17, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery: "Muscle Cramp."

Northwestern Health Sciences University: "Charley Horses -- Why Do I Get Them and How Can I Stop Them?"

LECOM College of Osteopathic Medicine: "Muscle cramp -- A common pain."

National Library of Medicine: "Muscle Cramps."

New England Baptist Hospital: “What is a Charley Horse and How Can I Ease My Muscle Cramp?”

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: “What Causes Charley Horses?”

Mayo Clinic: “Muscle cramp.”

Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Muscle Cramps.”

Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials: “Don’t Let Foot Cramps and Charley Horses Slow You Down.”

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