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The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

Ow! A Charley Horse!

Ow! A Charley Horse!

Has this ever happened to you? You’re running or swimming, or even sleeping soundly in bed, when a sharp pain seizes your leg and doesn’t let go. You’re left crumpled in a heap of hurt until it passes.

A leg cramp, known colloquially as a “charley horse,” occurs when a muscle in your leg contracts and doesn’t immediately relax. These muscle spasms can be incredibly painful and difficult to soothe. If you’re prone to charley horses, learn what causes them, how can you prevent them from happening, and what can you do about them once they start.

Leg cramps most often occur when muscles are injured or strained. They are more likely to occur if you allow yourself to become dehydrated, or are deficient in minerals such as calcium and potassium. Irritated nerves can also be responsible for chronic muscle spasms.

If you get a charley horse, either while exercising or at night, do not try to stretch the muscle at first. Depending on how tight the muscle is, you may tear the tissues and injure yourself. Instead, massage the area lightly with your fingers. Taking a hot bath or applying a hot compress can also help. Once the pain has passed, you may try to gently stretch the muscle. If some pain persists after the spasm has passed, you can take an anti-inflammatory pain medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, and apply ice to the area. A mentholated muscle rub may also help.

Here are some strategies for preventing future charley horses:

- Stretch regularly, especially before and after working out, and before bed.

- Wear good, comfortable, supportive shoes.

- Don’t overextend yourself. Whether working out or doing household chores, listen to your body and don’t push yourself beyond your capabilities.

- Drink plenty of water on a regular basis. During workouts, or on very hot days, switch to a sports drink to replace electrolytes lost through your sweat.

- Drink alcohol and coffee in moderation, as they can contribute to dehydration.

- Eat foods that are rich in potassium and magnesium, such as whole grains, bananas, dates, raisins, apricots, cabbage, broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and fish.

- Eat the recommended daily allowance of dairy products, such as milk and cheese, and talk to your doctor about whether you would benefit from a calcium supplement.

- Make sure your bed sheets are loose. Tight-fitting sheets can forces the legs and feet into awkward positions.

For most people, charley horses are a mild and occasional annoyance. If you experience leg cramps on a regular basis, visit to your doctor. Frequent muscle spasms can indicate a more serious underlying condition requiring medical treatment and/or physical therapy.

44 comments

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2 Bonnie { 01.13.14 at 10:43 am }

I have had a charlie horse in the calf of my leg for 10 days now, and no matter what I do nothing is helping. Any ideas?

3 Janice Primavera { 12.29.13 at 8:36 pm }

When I wake up with charlie horses after a couple days they end up in both legs at the same time and I cannot get rid of them for awhile. I have to have 3to 4 units of blood about every 5 to 6 months because I got bit by a brown recluse in 2000. And also had Remadic fever when I was a baby and had my spleen removed 5 years ago. So if you get bad Charlie horses regulary check with your dr soon. Its usually serious.

4 antoinette { 11.02.13 at 10:48 pm }

I h have really bad cramps that I jump out of bed and run to the bathroom to get to the cold floor but it does not work I keep rubbing my leg, it is so bad that my leg hurts for about a week after. I get them in the back of my thigh and side of my calf and calf I am so tried of this problem.

5 Harri { 09.17.13 at 8:39 pm }

This is a problem my whole family. Potassium, magnesium (especially–my dad eats 2 bananas a day and swears by them), tonic water, small glass of milk, vit. D, tall drink of water: that’s my ‘cocktail’ and sometimes it helps. No binding sheets or blankets– they can trigger a cramp at night. I seem to go through 2-week long bouts of them, and the start of cold weather and very hot weather make them more likely. Also lots of sitting.
I can feel them, sometimes, on the evenings before bed, waiting for me! All the muscles in my calves are sort of firing off, so that if I put my hands around the back of the calf, I can feel all these tiny flutters and mini-painful pops. Then I know I’m in for it. I massage and pummel the calf muscles, and stretch (stretch gently, or you’ll trigger one) to loosen the area, take all my remedies, and often I’m cramp free.
If you can, and I know when they hit at night there’s nothing but screaming pain– no way massage!– jump out of bed and put the bottom of affected foot on COLD floor, or swing it out against the cold wall, or cold bottom of wooden/metal beds. That seems to help ease them right away. I have a friend who gets them day & night, and will shove her leg into the freezers at the Supermarket! If a lesser cramp, gently trying to stretch feet to flatness. Oh, the agony when both legs go at once, then the thighs and feet–just scream it out. When it is that bad, it is overwork, sometimes under-use, and medications.
I, too, have some sort of kink in my physiology where I can move my feet/legs in certain ways and purposely cause cramps, especially in the feet. Never thought to go to Dr. about this, but I’m going to mention it next appointment.

6 Nan { 09.09.13 at 11:31 pm }

I have tried every home remedy suggested here and still get charlie horses almost every night. Wish there was something that worked better. Not getting a good nights sleep because of the cramps. Help !!

7 Katie { 09.01.13 at 11:12 pm }

I’m 16 and I’ve had quite a few Charley’s horses for the past couple years. It’s usually right before I fall asleep and suddenly I’ll feel my calf muscle get really tight and hard. It’s extremely painful; the only thing I can do is grab onto my leg. Some people said to get up and walk around or move your foot but I can’t move my leg at all when I get these. The muscle is too contracted. Anyone else??

8 Elaine { 08.02.13 at 9:06 pm }

i read quite a few of comments unfourantly i dont have an answer yet on back of the calf charlie horse ( woke up with one about 6 hours ago)
But i do get foot charlie horse since i was a child here is what helped me
the second it start relax you leg in a way you can reach your big toe, grab the big toe with your finger ( left hand) pull it back toward you slowly to the max hold it till the sharpest pain stops let go very slowly do not move your foot or toe till all the pain goes away do not do not bend your toes in
( it will start again if you bend your toes) heck i can give myself a charlie horse at any time if i bend my toes just 10 seconds also i think the cause is the fact i have a slight arch to none. As none is when i walk u cant see it. But if i lift my foot u can barely see it.

9 Cphillipa { 07.28.13 at 12:48 am }

I get Charley Horses at night. They come on suddenly and are so terribly painful. I can’t even move when I get them. Nothing seems to help, such as stretching or bending my feet. All I can do is lie there and grim-mus. Some times they last a long time and some times they go away quite soon.

10 Tanya { 05.23.13 at 8:46 am }

When I am having one, I have learned to extend your foot and push the heel away from your body. This seems to lessen the pain of having it move throughout your whole lower leg. It really hurts:(

11 Danielle { 05.04.13 at 4:33 am }

I mostly get my Charlie horses at night
I get them all the time. Believe me if you haven’t had one u don’t want one.I have been getting them a lot lately.I’m
Not sure why I’m getting them lately. There’s people that say because I’m growing or exercising or not drinking enough water.But I DNT think it’s true at all.It’s a sharp shocking pain that abruptly wakes me up. To the point of bursting into tears and screaming. Tonight is one of those nights I feel it coming on and I don’t want to sleep at this point. It usually occurs in my left leg peralizing me from my knees down
It doesn’t feel good.

12 Sandra { 01.25.13 at 6:49 am }

I am a nationally certified, therapeutic massage therapist in Florida. I, too, have had this problem; and I worked out enough people to tell you that the problem is coming from an imbalance in your feet. The balance is causing your muscles to be too tight and they need to be fully released. This is not something that the majority of massage therapists do. All the other remedies mentioned here are temporary fixes. To really fix the problem with your legs, the muscles need to be released and Orthotics are necessary. Check my site for other health related articles.

13 Maria { 01.17.13 at 10:15 pm }

For the past months I’ve been experiencing a feeling of a charley horse about to happen. And the worst times is when I’m driving. After a long day at work. I’m not sure what ill do if I get one while I’m driving. Because when I get one which I just got one just last nite it hurts so bad !!

14 Caitlin The Marcher { 10.23.12 at 11:15 pm }

Hi I get my Charlie horses @ night like11PM-6AM and its always my right cavle and I’m in marching band so any tips and can someone explain the soap trick ??? Please we have state this weekend!!

15 Aimee { 10.07.12 at 10:53 am }

The other day I was swimming and all of the sudden my leg just tightened up and I felt as if I couldn’t move. I had it massaged a bit when I had gotten home, and that seemed to help a little. It started to feel better, and after supper it felt as if it had gotten worse. I had it massaged again once before I went to bed, and that really helped. But this morning I woke up and I can barely walk on it and now I’m limping. it’s the worst pain. Just wondering if anyone has had this too or if it’s just me?

16 rosemcomer { 10.06.12 at 11:38 am }

yellow mustard works for me, it is the tumeric in it…….don’t believe it !!! try it.

17 Mary { 09.21.12 at 9:21 pm }

I was laying down about to be in a full deep sleep when. I awoke to some truly painful spasms. I felt it start in my left ankle then my right calve and went all the way up to my inner right thigh. I screamed and I cried. immediately started punching myself in leg and pinching my ankle. The spasm went into my left toe. Meanwhile my right leg was havn its own spasm party. I was in so much pain I couldnt do anything but call on Jesus. When the pain eased up enough. I was afraid to move at all. It felt like if I moved they were waiting to start all over again. This happened earlier in the day same thing in both legs. This time I dranks some water and took a potassium supplement and stretched my legs this seemed to stop the pain for now.

18 katie { 09.20.12 at 5:57 pm }

I was taking a nap around 6:00pm after school like a month ago, and i suddenly woke up with this unbearable pain in my right calf. i had NO idea what was going on (i had never had a charlie horse before), i just grabbed my leg and sat there like paralyzed. it was sooo incredibly painful i had no idea what to do! after it was over i fell right back to sleep then woke up a few hours later and had totally forgotten about it, like i thought it was a bad nightmare or something. anyways i got up and immediately felt pain in my right calf again-sore pain, not another charlie horse.. it was awful :(

19 Frankie { 09.08.12 at 3:40 pm }

I too have painful leg cramps at night while sleeping. I don’t have them any other time. Recently, they have occurred in my thighs as well as calves. They are excruiating!!!! My daughter who is an RN suggested pinching my lip under my nose. Sometimes this has actually helped! I take a low dose cholesterol medication. I was taking Vivomo for joint/knee problems and the doctor took me off that saying muscle cramps were a side effect in 5% of people taking it. Every night I go to sleep in fear that I will be suddenly awakened by an excruiating pain in my legs. My legs are sore for days afterward! I am still looking for something that prevents/helps this problem!!!!

20 Dawn { 08.12.12 at 7:37 am }

Thanks for all the help I charlie horse and it wakes me at night I find if I rest my leg then go to get up to go to the toilet and if I walk to long on it. My leg cramps are just offal. I am a Registered Childminder in my own home amd need my legs. I only have it in one leg. Plus this last while my urine is pail colour so would I not be drinking enough & am I laking in vitiams. please can you help me.

21 Camille { 08.08.12 at 9:58 am }

Tonic water works for me. I have the same problem as Cleo Z Lowery above with the feet and toes, however additionally in the back shins muscles. Tonic water also helps me with restless leg syndrome.

22 Shirley { 08.03.12 at 5:18 pm }

Quinine is still availavle in a product made for leg cramps. Ask your pharmacist where to find it . Hyland’s leg cramps. You just dissolve a couple under your tongue.

23 Alice { 06.13.12 at 7:07 pm }

wow the other morning i was suffering from having two charley horse in both calves and ive been suffering with my right leg hurting all the way up wow i hope its no blockage going on! As anybody had this kind of experience?

24 Donna { 02.25.12 at 4:10 pm }

Wow it hurts to have a charley horse .. and my leg was sore for a few days after

25 Jaime McLeod { 02.06.12 at 11:56 am }

Deseree, low arches can cause a whole host of foot, ankle, and shin problems. They create added stress on your feet when you walk. If the pain is frequent enough to impact your life, you should probably talk to a podiatrist. You might benefit from orthotics – devices that you can put into your shoes to support your arches and ensure that you foot is aligned properly when you walk. If the pain is rare, then you might be able to get away with stretching your feet each night before bed. Here is a basic primer on foot stretches: http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/hygiene-tips/how-to-care-for-your-feet2.htm.

26 Deseree { 02.06.12 at 5:57 am }

I get them in my arches. They wake me up in the middle of the night to immense pain. Im talking it hurts so bad that my dad if he hears my screams has to come work it out of my foot for me because i cant move it hurts that bad!! If anyone knows why its the arches any info would be loved!! I hate them so much. I have lower arches. But would that be the cause?

27 anonymous { 11.04.11 at 5:27 pm }

I just tense up and straighten my leg and it goes away!

28 Carol { 10.21.11 at 8:07 pm }

The vinegar and the dill pickle juice work for me. takes about 9 minutes and I am back in bed and ready for sleep again. I really get them bad sometimes in both ships and front and back of thighs. My feet and toes just go crazy at night and really just anytime. My fingers and hands if I am cutting a steak for instance cramp, and I have to stop and work them out. Really is annoying.

29 brenda { 05.26.11 at 10:52 am }

I have had charlie horses before but this morning it started in both calves and the left one was drawling my leg and foot up. I couldn’t even get my heel on the floor, i had to force it slowly and it kept trying to do it after that and i had to be careful how i moved or it would start in a cramp again, They really hurt, Don’t know why they started. I take a lot of bp meds maybe my potassium is low?

30 marty { 05.24.11 at 10:59 pm }

jeanel. my son had severe cramps when he was younger. we took him to the Dr and found he was low in potassium, so we would give him bananas and also the green GatorAde (the original). It helped him immensely. My heart would break hearing him screaming with the cramps. hope this helps!

31 valerie and blake { 05.23.11 at 4:59 am }

dill pickle juice is a cure my friend swears by,massage, hot water soaks, and bengay on the muscle seem to help with cramping and restless legs..

32 wanda { 05.15.11 at 3:44 pm }

i have leg cramps that get me in the top back of my legs,at night,my dr. said its is due to my back injury,i take a muscle relaxer about 3 times a week…i still get the cramps but not as often.

33 cindy { 05.13.11 at 12:35 pm }

My husband is a firm believer that pinching the ear lobe on the side of pain works for him it does’nt for me.

34 cindy { 05.13.11 at 12:33 pm }

I had one the other morning, still hurts.

35 jeanel { 05.12.11 at 8:15 pm }

I have a 5 year old daughter who has had chronic leg aches/cramps since before 2 years of age that have always happened in her sleep. I have noticed that now when she has them she is in so much pain that I just don’t know what to do to make her comfortable. Luckily, I have done some of the things that were mentioned like massage the area, use a heating pad, and I do end up giving her some tylenol for the pain. Just curious if anyone has a child that has had similiar experiences.

36 Nancy { 05.12.11 at 6:18 pm }

For a charley horse, take 1 teaspoon yellow mustard. The small packs from restaurants work.

37 Mel { 05.12.11 at 1:53 pm }

I have also heard of drinking Tonic Water, since quinine is no longer available.

38 carlos { 05.12.11 at 7:17 am }

u might wanna try the old amish formula that goes by the name of, stop leg & foot cramps in about 1 min. it works 4 me n it’s working 4 my mother she is 86 n now she sleeps thru d night, look it up in d internet hope this helps.

39 Nyla { 05.11.11 at 8:44 pm }

I get” charle horses” almost daily and drink vinegar which gives me immediate relief. Years ago I took quinine but they no longer make it. If I don’t have vinegar handy I take a good drink of pickel juice. I take potassium and calcium daily,

40 Lee { 05.11.11 at 2:13 pm }

I’ve been able to relieve a charlie horses in my calves by pushing my heel down and my foot up. Once I’m able to push through the initial pain it has worked everytime and given me immediate relief. Can’t say that it would work for everyone…it’s just my tried and true method.

41 rebecca gray { 05.11.11 at 1:43 pm }

A very old lady told me to put a bar of soap under the top sheet on my bed and I have not had leg cramps since. Crazy huh??

42 Joyce { 05.11.11 at 12:16 pm }

i no alot of people including me and my spouse who are having alot of leg cramps here lately…was wondering if any other people have been going through this as well?

43 Jaime McLeod { 05.11.11 at 11:31 am }

Hi Cleo,
You should consult your doctor about lessening the frequency of this problem. When it’s actively happening, though, just follow the advice in the story. Try warm baths, massaging, etc. Best of luck!

44 Cleo Z. Lowery { 05.11.11 at 10:38 am }

I take cholesterol medication and the side effects of this medication is muscle cramps. Sometimes my toes draw sideways and over the top of each other or get wide apart, (example, the big toe goes way out from the one beside it.) I have charlie horses in the legs, the difference in the charlie horse in the legs and the drawing in the feet is … when you stand up on the feet it helps the drawing go away, the charlie horse you stand up and it gets worse. what do you suggest to help my problem I need to take the medication?

45 Marie { 05.10.11 at 2:53 pm }

I’m a Certified Massage Therapist in the State of Indiana. I like what was addressed in the article. Also what may help drink water, do stretches after working out and even after you work in the yard or garden. Warm compresses and holding slight pressure on the muscle may help.

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