Charley Horse

Charley horse in athletes

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Understanding Charley Horse

The unbelievably common leg cramps people experience is medically termed as Charley Horse. Charley Horse is an involuntary muscle spasm leading to cramps. Any muscle in the body can go into a spasm, although this medical condition occurs most commonly in the muscles of the legs. The skeletal muscles in the calf, thigh, and arch of the foot are more prone to contractions causing severe pain. The muscle that has gone into a cramp can visibly twitch and feel hard upon touch. These muscle spasms can occur even during sleep. Lying in an awkward position for a long time can also trigger this condition. One of the overriding causes of muscle spasm is dehydration

Although, most of the time these muscle spasms are harmless, what is perhaps unnerving is, they can arise without any warning. Recurring Charley Horses will need an investigation to rule out the existence of an underlying condition, Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD).

Typically, these spasms or cramps can last for a few seconds or more. Longer spasms cause soreness in the affected muscle that can last for a few hours or even linger for a day. Anyone who has experienced a Charley Horse will recall the experience of excruciating pain.

So, why do we refer a leg cramp with this unique name?

According to legend, the American Baseball pitcher of the 1880s, Charley Radbourne, a.k.a Old Hoss had apparently suffered an incapacitating cramp on the baseball field. The name, Charlie horse, allegedly came to be associated with these muscle contractions in the legs.

Who are at risk of Charley Horse?

The existence of certain conditions as well as a lifestyle can up the risk of Charley Horse.

  • Obesity
  • Expecting Women
  • Sportsmen, Athletes
  • Sedentary older adults
  • Infants
  • Victims of Hypertension, Diabetes, Hypothyroidism
  • Smokers

What Causes Charley Horse?

Medical experts have pinned the possible causes for Charley Horse that leaves victims with cramping and pain of varying intensity. Some of the predominant reasons are as follows:

  • Poor blood circulation in the legs: Muscles need oxygen and poor blood circulation can cause a reduced amount of oxygen supply, leading to spasms
  • Muscle fatigue: Excessive workload on the muscle can lead to fatigue. If the body is not given adequate recovery time post-exercise, muscle fatigue sets in. This also results in reduced assimilation of nutrients needed to energize the muscles. The efficiency of muscle function drops leading to spasms
  • Insufficient fluid intake: Fluid keeps muscles well hydrated as well as helps them contract and relax. Inadequate fluid intake results in muscle strain, making it more prone to Charley Horse.
  • Inadequate warming up/stretching pre and post-exercise: Inactivity or a sudden increase in the intensity of exercise leaves muscles unprepared to handle the sudden workload. This can lead to cramps.
  • Exposure of muscles to extreme hot or cold temperatures: Muscles lose more heat in cold weather and contract. This causes stiffness leading to cramps. Extreme heat can also cause muscles to stiffen especially if one overexerts or exercises in hot and humid weather. This could also lead to dehydration that increases the risk of muscle cramps.
  • Sedentary lifestyle/Not changing the sitting position for long hours: Cramps can occur among those whose lifestyle is sedentary. Even sitting too long in one position without any movement of muscles can increase the susceptibility to charley horse.
  • Prolonged use of certain medicines: Antihypertensives, for instance, Diuretics, to reduce blood pressure can cause the fluid and salt content in the body to drop. Some statins can also trigger muscle cramps. Medicines to treat conditions like asthma, osteoporosis, and diabetes and cholesterol-lowering agents can increase the risk of cramps. Few oral contraceptives can also cause a charley horse.
  • Compression of spinal nerves: A compressed nerve in the back or neck can cause cramps. Further, any injury to the spinal cord can trigger a severe form of charley
  • Depletion of minerals: Low levels of potassium, sodium, and calcium in the blood is an important reason for the onset of cramps.
  • Obesity: Overweight and obese people carry an elevated risk of improper blood circulation. The symptoms of poor blood supply can result in numbness, tingling, pain in the limbs and cramps.
  • Prolonged periods of stress: Stress is never good and is no exception with muscle cramps. Stress leads to muscle rigidity. Stress causes the nervous system to exert pressure on the blood vessels. This leads to contraction of muscles. Tense musclestend to go into a spasm.
  • Alcoholism: Alcohol-associated cramps is a reality. Consumption of alcohol can cause the collection of lactic acid in the muscles. This is akin to the accumulation of lactic acid after intense exercise, which can trigger cramps and soreness.
  • Parkinson’s disease: Muscle rigidity is one of the fallouts of Parkinson’s disease resulting in a reduction in movement. This can trigger the onset of a charley horse.
  • Hypothyroidism: Low thyroid levels can trigger stiffness in joints and muscles, which leads to pain and cramps.
  • High/Low blood sugar: Glucose is a vital ingredient needed by muscles that aids in contraction and relaxation of muscles. Cramps occur in both cases of high and low blood sugar. Mainly imbalance in sugar causes cramps.
  • Flat feet: Structural defects in the feet for instance flat feet can exert undue pressure on the muscles in the calf as well as those along the bottom of the feet. This can lead to cramping.
  • Peripheral artery disease: A serious medical condition could be underlying the symptom of leg cramps called peripheral artery disease. This condition is indicative of cholesterol blocking the blood vessels present in the legs that lead to disruption in blood flow. PAD can trigger painful leg cramps.
  • Pregnancy: Leg cramps during pregnancy are a reality. The reasons range from fatigue to compression of nerves and improper circulation of blood in the legs.  Other possible factors are a deficiency of magnesium and calcium. Inadequate consumption of fluids is also a common cause of cramps for expecting mothers.

Medicines that can trigger the charley horse

Following are some of the medicines that can cause the onset of muscle cramps.

  • Donepezil (Aricept), used to treat Alzheimer’s disease
  • Furosemide (Lasix), hydrochlorothiazide (Microzide), and other diuretics that remove fluid from the body
  • Neostigmine (Prostigmine), for myasthenia gravis
  • Raloxifene (Evista), for treating osteoporosis
  • Nifedipine (Procardia), medicine to treat hypertension and angina
  • Terbutaline (Brethine), albuterol (Proventil and Ventolin), are asthma medications
  • Tolcapone (Tasmar), which helps treat Parkinson’s disease
  • Statin medications to lower cholesterol, such as fluvastatin(Lescol), atorvastatin (Lipitor)lovastatin (Mevacor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), pravastatin (Pravachol), or simvastatin (Zocor)

Interesting myths about Charley Horse

  • Will eating a banana stop an imminent muscle spasm? Although a medium-sized banana can take care of 12% of the daily requirement of potassium, it might not help someone experiencing a cramp. For the potassium to be absorbed into the body, it takes more than 60 minutes and it may do precious little to relieve a cramp.
  • Pickle juice – Even though few athletes reported relief from cramps after drinking pickle juice, there is no apparent link in spite of its salt or fluid content. During blood tests, the results showed the blood plasma composition remained unaltered afterthe consumption of water or pickle juice.

What are the symptoms of Charley Horse?

 Those who experience these painful spasms in the legs may have noticed certain telltale symptoms that precede its onset.

Involuntary muscle contractionsmost often in the legs

  • Heaviness at the spot preceding the condition
  • Contraction and stiffening of muscles in the toes
  • Twitching of muscles
  • Hardening of muscles at the site of the cramp
  • Strenuous exercise as a trigger for muscle spasms

Diagnosing Charley Horse

Medical experts evaluate symptoms, occurrence, and frequency to diagnose the condition. They also suggest blood tests to ascertain levels of key mineral and electrolytes in the body. Some important pointers that help in the diagnosis are as follows:

  • Many people experience a charley horse when they are asleep. This is of course quite common and does not need any medication especially if it is not frequent.
  • If muscle cramps trouble more than once in a week, consult a medical specialist.
  • Medical specialists conduct a thorough physical examination and record the patient’s medical history.
  • Depending upon the severity and frequency of spasms, experts may suggest further investigation, for instance, MRI scan to evaluate the nerve condition. These scans show the condition of the nerves clearly to assess the situation better and accordingly prescribe treatment.
  • Laboratory tests to check the levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium levels also aid diagnosis

Treatment for Charley Horse

Most often, these cramps get resolved immediately. They are usually treatable and preventable by adopting certain measures. Any pain caused by a spasm will not typically last more than a day. However, if you experience charley horse frequently, talk with your doctor about possible treatment measures. They can help determine the cause, treatment and preventive measures to get rid of these painful spasms.

  • Charley horse is treatable at home as long as they are not frequent and recurring
  • Treatment will depend on the cause of the spasm. For exercise-induced spasms, simple stretches and massage with heat packs can help the muscle relax. It is also good to stretch before and after the exercise as a way to prevent spasms
  • If the muscle continues to ache, pain management drugs like Ibuprofen helps. In case of severe spasm, doctors prescribe antispasmodic medication
  • In certain cases, doctors prescribe physiotherapy to relieve the contracting muscle
  • In extreme case of a frequent charley horse, consultation with a neurologist can help ascertain the severity of the condition
  • Surgery may be a solution for a few patients dealing with nerve compression where intervention may be the only way to relieve the pressure.

How to manage the symptoms

  • Certain massage techniques and stretch exercises may relieve symptoms of Charley. Try standing up, stepping on the leg that is not having a cramp and lunge forward on the front leg.
  • Stand on the tip of your toes for a few seconds to stretch the calf muscles as a way to relax the muscle.

Prevention of charley horse

 As with any illness, prevention is always better than cure. Follow some simple measures to completely prevent or reduce the severity of cramps.

  • For exercise-induced cramps, stretch or warm-up exercises before and after the session help
  • Use your thumbs to apply pressure gradually on the site of the cramp to relieve the pain.
  • Avoid exercise of the cramped muscle until the pain is completely gone
  • Drink adequate water as dehydration is one of the causes of muscle spasm.
  • Avoid exercising in severe weather conditions.
  • Drink beverages that contain electrolytes.
  • To avoid muscle cramps during sleep it is advisable to perform stretches before going to bed.
  • Always exercise under the supervision of a professional fitness This is especially the case with weight lifting that requires guidance to avoid injury to the muscle.

 

Facts

  • Almost everyone experiences a charley horse. Although Doctors explain possible causes, the exact reason remains unclear
  • Pregnant women and the elderly are more prone to charley horse
  • No foolproof cure for charley horse exists despite all the study that has gone into finding a cure

Facts

  • Quinine was earlier used to treat cramps until one day FDA warned against the dangerous cardiac side effects
  • Most patients learn to cope with Charley horse. The study on this condition continues but for now Charley horse remains a physiological mystery

Facts

  • Compression of spinal nerves is a more severe form of the charley horse which in certain cases requires surgical intervention
  • Post-dialysis is a period susceptible to charley horse since dialysis depletes the body of fluids causing an imbalance in electrolyte levels.

Related Conditions

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Dos and Don'ts

Dos
  • Exercise regularly
  • Perform stretches before and after exercise
  • Consume a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals
  • Adopt a comfortable posture while sitting
  • Drink adequate water
  • De-stress and relax
Don'ts
  • Remain inactive for a prolonged period
  • Overexert muscles
  • Smoke
  • Consume alcohol

 

 

 

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Maltodextrin: What are the hidden health benefits of this food additive? Maltodextrin is one of the few food additives that has been relatively deemed safe. Many experts now have…
hYdroxycut pills
Hydroxycut: How safe are these so-called weight loss supplements? Hydroxycut is a blend of several different ingredients formulated to promote weight loss; powered by a key weight…
Jackfruit: Slice your way into higher immunity, better digestion, & more… Native to the South East Asia, the jackfruit is a fruit brimming with thousands of health benefits. Discover…
phenytoin test
Phenytoin test Phenytoin is a drug that is administered mainly to epilepsy patients. The phenytoin blood test measures the level…
fructosamine test
Fructosamine Test A fructosamine test measures blood sugar glucose content. Fructosamine level can indicate blood sugar level in past 2-3…
antihepatitis core antigent
Anti-Hepatitis B Core Antigen (AHBc) Total Anti-hepatitis B core antigen (AHBC ) is a blood examination and the only serological marker of infectious blood…
Thyroid disorders
Thyroid Profile Thyroid profile is a panel of blood tests performed to check if an individual is suffering from any…
blood ketone test
Blood Ketone (D3HB) Test The Blood Ketone Test measures and monitors the levels of ketone in the blood which is usually performed…
Optavia diet
The features of an Optavia diet The Optavia diet endorses pre-packaged meals and snacks called "fuelings" that are tasty, low in calorie, and incorporates…
gout diet purines
Gout Diet : Get relief from painful joints by eating these foods Are you a victim of this painful condition? Are medications providing only short relief? Find a list of…
Horny Goat Weed: Can it improve libido in human beings too? This plant got its name as Horny Goat Weed when one of the goats feeding on the plant…
GM Diet: The fastest way to lose weight or yet another hoax diet? General Motors started this trend of extreme dieting for 7 straight days to ensure its employees were able…
Love tea, hate tannins? Rooibos tea is just what you need The market is brimming with a multitude of herbal teas. But what makes rooibos tea (or red bush)…
Erythritol: A healthy sugar substitute or yet another marketing ploy? Erythritol is a popular choice of a healthy alternative sweetening agent in foods. But how healthy can a…
Carb Cycling: Weighing the pros vs the cons of this diet routine Completely discarding carbs from your life will do you more harm than good. Read more about carb cycling,…
Balneotherapy jacuzzi
5 things you didn’t know about balneotherapy and how you can do it at home Sauna baths have been popular since a long time. But how much more beneficial can balneotherapy be as…
Anti-CCP Test – Anti-Cyclic Citrullinated Peptide Anti-ccp or ACCP test is a blood test that is primarily employed to diagnose the onset of rheumatoid…
cardioliin antibody iga
Cardiolipin Antibody (ACL) – IgA test Cardiolipins are phospholipids that are constituents of the platelets and the cell membranes. The IgA test detects the…
complement c4 test
Anemia Profile Anemia Profile test (Basic) is a blood screening test that measures the levels of important components of the…
shiitake mushrooms healthy
What are Shiitake Mushrooms and why should you eat them? Shiitake Mushrooms are well known for their smoky and robust taste. However, did you know they are replete…
pilonidal sinus
Pilonidal sinus Pilonidal sinus is more common in young men than women. Learn about treatment options, surgical management, risks, and…
improve digestion weight loss
Power up your gut: 8 proven steps on how to improve your digestion Did you know you have a colony of bacteria in your gut that help you in digesting food?…
low fodmap plan
Troubled with IBS? Here’s a complete roadmap to the low FODMAP diet Leaky & inflammatory gut troubling you? No medicine bringing you relief from the pain? Why not try the…
Kava: Is it the healthy substitute for alcohol you have been waiting for? Native to the beautiful South Pacific islands, Kava is a famous beverage rooted in the local culture. It…
Psyllium Husk: More than just an effective natural laxative Psyllium husk, or isabgol, is a popular natural laxative . But did you in addition to regulating bowels,…
Find all the instant ways to get rid of blackheads Blackheads - Not only are they aesthetically unappealing but if left untreated these can cause bacterial overgrowth on…
Ear pain model
Easy and safe tips for ear wax removal you can do at home Cerumen impaction generally occurs when an external object like cotton swabs are used to remove the ear wax.…
Atkins diet weight loss
Atkins Diet: The right steps to carb control that can help you lose those pounds fast The Atkins diet is a high fat, low-carb diet with proven weight loss benefits that is flexible enough…
Chest X-Ray A chest x-ray is a diagnostic test that uses x-rays to visualize the structures inside your chest. It…
blood elements analysis
Blood Element Analysis Test A blood element analysis is a blood test performed to measure the level of toxic elements such as…
PROGESTERONE_test
Progesterone test The progesterone test is a blood test used to determine the level of hormone progesterone in the blood…
iron deficiency profile
Iron Deficiency Profile An iron deficiency profile is a battery of blood tests which are performed in order to determine the…
Okra: How can this nutrient-dense vegetable help you fight diabetes? Okra is a food which is rich in nutrients and minerals which are extremely essential for a healthy…
dance health benefits
5 unbelievable effects of dance on your overall health! You enjoy dancing, but did you know what else it does to your body? Dancing is not only…
Jack in the box fast food
Jack In the Box : The perils of surging fast food culture in the USA Jack in the Box - How a culture of fast-food can clog your arteries, weaken your heart, fatten…
black seed oil benefits
Black Seed Oil: What secret benefits could it bestow on your health? Black seeds or nigella seeds are tiny packets of health brimming with amazing benefits. Find out why should…
Oil of Oregano: The one-stop essential oil you’ve been looking for Are you plagued by a weak immune system? High body inflammation accompanied by pain and infections? Why not…
Epley maneuver: Why is this the best protection from the symptoms of vertigo? Epley maneuver is an exercise that can treat the symptoms of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV).  It was…
Tart Cherry: The healthiest excuse for taking that second serving of pie Tart cherry has been traditionally used in delectable desserts such as pies. Recent studies have revealed that its…
Hydroquinone: Is it the best topical treatment for hyperpigmentation? Darkening of the skin due to high melanin levels is called hyperpigmentation.  Hydroquinone interferes with melanin production thus treating…
Inversion Therapy: The anti-gravity way of healing chronic back pain Inversion therapy involves suspending a person upside dow using different types of equipment. This works by taking the…
The Cabbage Soup Diet: The healthiest way to instant weight loss Cabbage soup diet rapid weight loss diet for those who want to shed those extra pounds in less…
Coffee Enema: Turn your favorite morning beverage into a powerful colon cleanser The wonders of coffee are not just limited to waking you up every morning. You can now use…
CBC blood test
CBC (Hemogram 6-part diff) blood test CBC (Hemogram 6-part diff) blood test refers to the test that measures the number of RBCs, WBCs, etc…
reflexology massage
Top reasons why you should go for a reflexology massage today Reflexology involves the application of pressure to your feet and hands to encourage self-healing. Could this be beneficial…
Bone marrow aspiration Bone marrow aspiration is a process where a sample of the bone marrow is withdrawn from the bone…
C-Reactive Protein Test A CRP or c-reactive protein blood test is an important diagnostic tool used to determine the risk of…
HSV-1_IGG
Herpes Simplex Virus I (HSV)-IgG Test Herpes simplex virus I(HSV)-IgG is an Immunoglobulin protein that acts as an antibody & stays in the blood…
malarial antigen test
Malaria Antigen Test A malaria antigen test is a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) that can detect malarial antigens (proteins) in your…
lipase test
Lipase Test A lipase test is a blood test performed to quantitatively measure the level of the enzyme lipase in…
Squid-ink-spaghetti
Squid Ink: A unique food coloring and flavoring agent Want to add a unique black color to your pasta, noodles and ice-creams? How can you use squid…
Squid-ink-spaghetti
Squid Ink: A unique food coloring and flavoring agent Want to add a unique black color to your pasta, noodles and ice-creams? How can you use squid…
Squid-ink-spaghetti
Squid Ink: A unique food coloring and flavoring agent Want to add a unique black color to your pasta, noodles and ice-creams? How can you use squid…
Sushi: health benefits and recipes Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish prepared with vinegared rice served with fish (often raw), vegetables, and other…
hidden benefits walking
9 benefits of walking we bet you didn’t know! Did you know walking can be the miracle pill for eternal youth? Everyone knows walking is good for…