What Is a Charley Horse?
A charley horse is a muscle spasm -- when a muscle suddenly tightens up on its own and can’t relax. These cramps can happen anywhere in your body. They’re common in your legs and feet.
A muscle cramp, though painful, is harmless and usually only lasts seconds to minutes. Often, you can take care of the pain yourself at home with a little stretching.
Though you might get a cramp because of exercise or other activity, it can just as easily happen when you’re sitting still or sleeping.
Charley Horse Causes
Things that can trigger a charley horse include:
- Poor blood flow
- Working your muscles too much
- Not stretching enough
- Being active in high temperatures
- A lack of magnesium and/or potassium in your diet
- A problem such as a spinal cord injury or a pinched nerve in your neck or back
- Kidney disease
Muscle cramps can also be a side effect of some drugs, such as:
- Furosemide (Lasix), hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide), and other diuretics ("water pills") that lower levels of certain electrolytes (sodium and potassium) and take fluid out of your body
- Donepezil (Aricept), used to treat Alzheimer's disease
- Neostigmine (Prostigmine), used for myasthenia gravis
- Nifedipine (Procardia), a treatment for angina and high blood pressure
- Raloxifene (Evista), an osteoporosis treatment
- Asthma medications albuterol (Proventil, Ventolin) and terbutaline (Brethine)
- Tolcapone (Tasmar), which treats Parkinson's disease
- Statin medications for cholesterol, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), or simvastatin (Zocor)
Charley Horse Risk Factors
Certain people tend to get charley horses more often:
- Older adults
- Pregnant women
- People who are overweight or obese
- Those who have conditions like diabetes or thyroid, liver, or nerve disorders
Charley Horse Symptoms
A charley horse feels like the affected muscle has tightened up and locked down. It’s painful and can happen suddenly – even when you’re just lying there, sleeping.
Charley Horse Diagnosis
You don’t need to see your doctor unless you have a charley horse along with one of these conditions:
- Vomiting, diarrhea, or severe sweating (which can cause dehydration)
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
Stretching the affected area is often helpful. Here are some ways to do that for specific areas:
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.
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 ease pain, use an ice pack or take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or naproxen.
Foot cramp treatment: When your foot muscle tightens up, try these tips to help it relax:
- If you’re sitting or lying down, stand up and put weight on your cramping foot. Hold onto something if you feel like you might lose your balance.
- Flex your foot and toes, lifting them upward toward your nose. (If standing, walk on your heels.) You can also stretch the muscles by grabbing your foot with your hand or wrapping a towel, necktie, or belt around the ball of your foot and toes, pulling the foot further up toward your nose.
- Rub your muscle gently as you stretch it. Try icing the area while you massage it. Put ice cubes in a plastic bag or use an ice pack. Never put ice directly on your skin.
- If ice is not working, put heat on the cramped muscle with a warm towel or heating pad. You can also soak it in warm water.
You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen to help ease any remaining aches.
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.