You may be familiar with the sudden aching pain in your calves that can sometimes stop you in your tracks or wake you from sleep. It’s more commonly known as a “charley horse,” but in any other part of the body, the same pain is more commonly called a muscle cramp.
Where Does the Term “Charley Horse” Come From?
A charley horse is a painful, sudden muscle cramp in the arm or leg. As there is no obvious connection between horses and this particular bodily phenomenon, one might wonder from where the term “charley horse” came from. We know that the term charley horse originated when American baseball players were describing the cramps. Possibly, the players named the painful cramps in reference to a lame horse named Charley that worked at the Chicago White Sox playing field in the late 1800s. Another theory is that charley horses are named for a baseball pitcher who suffered from these cramps, named Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourne. Although we may never know where the term came from, many of us continue to complain of “charley horses” when we have muscle cramps.
Why Do We Get Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps are intense, involuntary muscle contractions, also called “muscle spasms.” When one experiences a muscle cramp, there can be severe sharp or aching pain, usually accompanied by a hard knot felt under the skin, where the muscle tissue is contracting.These cramps are most common in the calf, thighs, and arches of the feet; however, any skeletal muscle (that is, a muscle you can control) can develop this problem.Although quite painful, muscle cramps are temporary and essentially harmless events, lasting seconds to minutes.
Several conditions increase your likelihood of getting muscle cramps:
- Overusing or straining during exercise, which is the most common cause
- Low or high levels of minerals in the blood, most often seen in people receiving dialysis
- Heat exposure during intense exercise
- Taking certain medications
- Compressed nerves, such as from spinal cord injury or pinched nerves in the back or neck
- Low blood flow to the arms or legs, such as peripheral vascular disease
- Those with certain medical conditions such as obesity, liver or thyroid disorders, and diabetes
- Those in certain age groups, like infants and the elderly
How to Treat Muscle Cramps
Few treatments have been rigorously proven to work for frequent charley horses or muscle cramps. Some treatments that have been explored include supplements such as magnesium, vitamin E, and B vitamin complex, as well as use of shockwave therapy, and medications.None of these treatments have been proven to make a significant difference in alleviating muscle cramps.
One of the most troublesome features of charley horses is what feels like the inability to relax your muscle. You can help encourage the cramp to end by relaxing the muscle through massage and stretching. Using heat or ice over the muscle also has a high likelihood to relax the tissue. Drink fluids if you are dehydrated. If the cramp returns, consider “walking it out,” taking a hot shower, or shaking the affected leg or arm.
Here are a few activities that are helpful in preventing muscle cramps:
- Drink plenty of water, especially if you are exercising in a hot environment; being well-hydrated is the most important step in prevention.
- Stretch your muscles before and after heavy use. Stretch before bed if you get cramps at night.
- Keep your legs in a natural position when you lie down to sleep; be sure that your covers are untucked at the foot of the bed and that your blankets allow you to flex your foot toward your head.
- Perform light exercise before bed; gentle range-of-motion activity can reduce the chance of a charley horse waking you from sleep.
When to Seek Medical Care
Most muscle cramps do not require special care. If, however, your cramps are frequent or severe, please see a healthcare provider for further assessment. They will screen you for potential causes and work with you to develop a treatment plan.
Michael Quinion, “Charley horse,” World Wide Words.
American Osteopathic Association, “Coping with muscle cramps: Why you don’t have to live with this common pain.”
Sherif El-Tawil, Tarique Al Musa, et al., “Quinine for muscle cramps,” Cochrane Database Syst Rev, no. 4 (2005), DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005044.pub3
Scott Garrison, Christina Korownyk, et al., “Magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps,” Cochrane Database Syst Rev 9, no. 9 (2020), DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009402.pub3
Laura Mori, Lucio Marinelli, et al., “Shock Waves in the Treatment of Muscle Hypertonia and Dystonia,” BioMed Research International, (2014), DOI: 10.1155/2014/637450
Mayo Clinic, “Symptoms Night Leg Cramps,” December 9, 2020.
Mayo Clinic, “Muscle cramp,” March 3, 2021.
MedlinePlus, “Muscle Cramps, Also Called: Charley Horse,” June 9, 2020.