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:
- 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 are also a side effect of some drugs, such as:
- Furosemide (Lasix), hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide), and other diuretics ("water pills") that 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 terbutaline (Brethine) and albuterol (Proventil, Ventolin)
- Tolcapone (Tasmar), which helps treat 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 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)
- Drinking too much alcohol
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.
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.
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.