What is a Charley Horse?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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Charley horse is a common metaphor for cramps or muscles spasms that occur in the legs. These are sudden and very painful and typically occur most often at night. They are usually the result of a few different things, including overuse of the muscles, poor mineral intake, or dehydration. Muscle spasms can occur anywhere, but most identify the charley horse as painful contractions of muscles in the calves or the thighs.

When people get a charley horse, taking deep breaths and relaxing may help the symptoms subside in a few minutes. Other times, people will have one of these cramps and it will last longer. In some cases when the muscle stays contracted, you can actually feel a lump under the skin. If you can manage it, massaging this lump will sometimes help the muscle or muscles to relax, though the pain of a charley horse can be so significant, this may be impossible at first.


Typical charley horses may be so painful that they’ll wake people up at night or prevent getting to sleep. Fortunately there are some ways to reduce likelihood of getting these. Keeping hydrated, especially if you’re exercising a lot can be a great way to lower incidence of muscle spasms. A lot of times these cramps are linked to missing minerals like magnesium, calcium and potassium. If your diet is inadequate, you may be more prone to cramps. It can help to eat foods rich with these substances, but when this is not possible, taking a supplement with magnesium and calcium may help.

When people haven’t exercised for a while, they may get a charley horse during exercise or again at night when they go to sleep. It can help to build up to really strenuous exercise, stretch before you work out, and if you continue to get these cramps when you’re first working out, do consider whether dehydration or lack of minerals is a factor. If you get these cramps often, you should see a doctor. Occasionally things like low thyroid hormone, diabetes, or anemia can cause muscle spasms.

Pregnant women are particularly prone to getting a charley horse or several in the calves and the feet. When pregnant women point their toes, especially in the later stages of pregnancies, the calf muscles may cramp up and cause very painful cramps. The best way to avoid this is to not point the toes.

Some doctors suggest that you use a cold pack on a charley horse to help relax the muscles, and others suggest using heat to promote relaxation. It may be a matter of figuring out which method best works for you. When people have these cramps often, some doctors prescribe certain muscle relaxants. However, following guidelines on proper nutrition and hydration can reduce these awful cramps and make them occur with less frequency.


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Post 2

I am having severe upper back leg cramps.

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