by Kimberly Allen, RN
If you’ve ever had one you know that a Charley horse is one horse you don’t want to keep around for long. Charley horse is a popular colloquial term used mostly in the US for muscle cramps, especially in the lower leg or calf. Pretty much anyone can get a Charley horse but the are more common in older people because as we age we lose muscle mass leaving the remaining muscle to work more and become overstressed. Athletes that become dehydrated and tired while participating in their sport in warm to hot weather are more prone to Charley horses. Charley horses are also more common in pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions like diabetes, thyroid or liver disorders as well as nerve disorders.
A Charley horse or muscle cramp is the sudden, forceful and uncontrolled contraction of a muscle. the most common muscles to suddenly contract are those in the calf or lower portion of your leg as well as the thigh muscles and those in the arch of your foot. However, they can occur anywhere, personally I get them in my toes. The exact cause of Charley horses is not clear, however, doctors believe there are a variety of factors that can lead to them. The most common factors associated with Charley horses include overexertion of your muscle during exercise, muscle fatigue, and not stretching properly before exercising. Exercising in the heat and dehydration which can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, particularly low potassium and magnesium levels. Pregnant women tend to have lower calcium levels which can lead to muscle cramps. There are also a number of medications that can cause muscle cramping including diuretics like lasix and hydrochlorothiazide because they can cause the body to lose potassium, asthma medications including Ventolin and Proventil can also cause an electrolyte imbalance which leads to muscle cramps. Other medications that can cause muscle cramping are the ‘statins’ used to treat high cholesterol levels including Crestor, Lipitor, Zocor and Mevacor.
As a rule muscle cramps or Charley horses are harmless, however, if you are having frequent muscle cramps they could be a symptoms of an underlying condition like arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis causes the arteries that deliver oxygen to your muscles to narrow which reduces the oxygen supply to your muscles which can lead to muscle cramping especially during exercise. any type of injury or disease that causes compression of your spinal nerves like lumbar stenosis can also cause muscle cramps in your legs.
Treatment of Charley horses usually involves stretching or massaging the muscle involved. Some people find relief from taking a warm bath to relax the muscles or soaking them in Epsom salt. I find that when I have a Charley horse in my calf the fastest and easiest way to get relief is to push my heel out while pulling my toes up toward my knee, this stretches the muscles and eases the cramp, quickly. If you have a Charley horse in your quadriceps, which is the front of your thigh, stand and steady yourself then bend the affected leg at the knee and pull your foot back and up toward your buttock.
The best way to prevent Charley horses is to stretch properly before exercising and stay hydrated while exercising. Drinking liquids with electrolytes like Gatorade and Pedialyte are also beneficial. It is also beneficial to eat more foods that are high in vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium as well as calcium. Should you continue to experience frequent muscle cramps or you start having them for no apparent reason you should consult your doctor as there may be an underlying medical problem requiring treatment that is causing them.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.