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Charley’s Horse Cramps: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Chris Park , On January 12, 2023


At some point, most of us have had that unfortunate experience of having a cramp. A Charley horse is a painful cramp that usually happens in the leg, calf or a cramp in the thigh.

Charley horse is a name that originates from a horse called Charley in Chicago who used to pull a roller at the White Sox baseball games. Horse Charley used to cramp on the field at times. This was obvious as people could see the muscles in Charley’s legs cramping. Since then the name “Charley Horse” hence became synonymous with a leg cramp.

What are the causes of a charley horse cramp?

While leg cramps are common in adults, they normally do not happen in children – and when they do, it should be investigated since this is not normal.

Heavy endurance training can lead to significant overuse of muscles and lead to cramping. Dehydration and electrolyte loss can lead to cramping in this case. Painful Charley horses can happen in muscles of the calf, thigh or even the small muscles of the feet.

In older adults, Charley horses are not necessarily associated with dehydration or electrolyte loss. These kind of muscle cramps happen typically in the night and are called nocturnal leg cramps. The physiology of nocturnal leg cramps in the elderly population is not well understood.

What are the risk factors for a charley horse leg cramps?

Thyroid: Liver disease and thyroid these can give an individual predisposition to a painful Charley horses especially in the feet.

Medicine: certain medications such as diuretics (water pills) can lead to muscle cramps. These medications are prescribed in patients who suffer from heart failure. When experiencing heart failure it is also important to consume a heart healthy diet including mindfully eating heart healthy meals observing vitamins and minerals that affect the heart.

Exercise and overactivity: This is especially true for athletes who are involved in endurance feats. A Charley horse in this group can happen in any group of muscles but it is most commonly seen in the hamstrings.

Dehydration: A loss of fluids and minerals – particularly of sodium, potassium and magnesium can predispose adults to a painful Charley Horse muscle cramp. Other medications such as statins used for high cholesterol can cause muscle soreness, pain and cramps in some individuals.

Vascular disease: When the blood supply can not reach the legs it can predispose individuals to cramping. This can be observed in the elderly population that experiences peripheral vascular disease or has a history of smoking.

Pregnancy: While the reasons for this are not completely understood pregnancy can lead to a charley horse cramp.

How to treat a charley horse quickly

Charley horse leg cramps happen quickly without zero to little warning. These muscle cramps also stop as quickly and erratically as they starts. Sometimes stretching the affected muscle can be useful, but the best Charley horse cramp prevention is therapy over cure in the moment. Below are some preventative measures to help stop Charley horse cramps from occurring:

  • Magnesium: Ensure you are not deficient in magnesium to prevent a charley horse cramp. One of the principal electrolytes that can get depleted is magnesium and it can result with Charley horses at night in individuals who take diuretics or experience dehydrated due to other causes. If a deficiency is identified, a magnesium supplement or an electrolyte beverage can reduce the incidence and frequency of Charley horse cramps.

  • Hydration: Staying hydrated during the day can help prevent the loss of fluids. So, ensure you are and remain well hydrated.

  • Compression stockings: If a Charley horse happens in the calf or the thigh, the use of compression stockings can help with circulation and reduce the frequency of cramps.

  • Minerals ingestion: While an excessive intake of sodium is damaging sodium is an important mineral along with potassium to ensure the prevention of charley horse leg cramps.

  • Massage therapy: Try a massage before going to bed and resting. If Charley horses happen after exercising in your case, a massage can be useful. Especially when Charley horse leg cramps happen in feat a handheld massage before bed can help reduce the frequency.

  • Stretching: Stretching before sleeping has benefits. Physical therapists and sports’ coaches often advise stretches, before and after a game to prevent cramps.

Chris Park

Chris Park is a board-certified sports nutritionist, registered dietitian and former college rugby player. Chris loves strength training and pushing his body to the limit, which comes in handy when working with professional athletes and designing their nutritional needs. Chris also enjoys helping others by writing about nutrition.