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Charley Horse - Causes, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Published on Feb 17, 2020 and last reviewed on Sep 14, 2022   -  4 min read


Sudden and painful muscle spasm is called a charley horse. It can affect any muscle but is more common in the legs. Learn about its causes, risk factors, diagnosis, treatment options, and prevention.

Charley Horse - Causes, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Muscle spasm is a very common condition and is also called Charley Horse. It can occur anywhere in the body but legs are the most common site. They are experienced as muscle contractions that are uncomfortable. If the spasm of the muscle does not relax in some time, it increases the intensity of the pain. This soreness, if becomes severe, can last from a few hours to even days. It can be considered normal if the pain does not recur again or prolongs.

Why Is It Called Charley Horse?

It can be dated back to the 1880s informal American sporting terms. One story says that it was used by a baseball player who was mentioning about a horse that was lame and horses actually helped with groundskeeper jobs in the game of baseball.

Another story is related to a Washington Post in 1907 where the term is supposed to come from a baseball pitcher named Charley who apparently used to get muscle cramps during games in the 1880s.

It has to be noted that Charley Horse does not occur only during the game of baseball, it can occur during any type of exercise, game or sport.

What Causes It?

A muscle cramp can be caused due to various factors which can be physiologic as well as pathologic. Some of the most common causes are listed below:

1.Blood flow to the muscle is inadequate.

2.Injuries to the muscle.

3.Exercising in extreme temperatures like hot or cold.

4.Over usage of a particular muscle during exercising.

5.Stress - This is most commonly seen affecting the muscles of the neck.

6.Lack of stretching before starting exercise.

7.Compression of nerve in the spine.

8.Usage of diuretics leading to low potassium levels.

9.Depletion of mineral, too little calcium, potassium, and sodium in the body.


It is noted that most people experience these types of spasms during sleeping hours and hence, are awakened in the middle of their sleep.

Sometimes, calf pain can be due to various other causes other than muscle cramp-like trauma, deep vein thrombosis, ruptured Baker’s cyst, etc. Also, some other illnesses can also alongside leg cramps like cardiac diseases, kidney diseases, neurological conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, metabolic conditions, etc. Hence, proper diagnosis is mandatory to rule out other conditions.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Muscles spasms are a common phenomenon and can happen to anyone at any time and any age. But, the following are known to be in the risk group:


2.Infants and children.

3.Elderly people.

4.Obese people.

5.People using diuretics, statins, etc.


Since obese people have poor circulation in the legs, they tend to experience more spasm in their legs. Muscle fatigue or overuse are common causes for Charley Horse in athletes.

How Does It Feel?

Usually, there is pain in the muscles of the affected areas, which may last up to a day. It is actually muscle cramping or spasm in that particular body part.

How Can It Be Diagnosed?

If the spasm happens occasionally, it does not require a medical diagnosis. But, if it is either frequent or recurrent, it needs medical attention followed by proper diagnosis. The doctor usually takes medical history followed by physical examination. Later, imaging tests like MRI scans can be used. Sometimes, to rule out low potassium or calcium or magnesium levels, laboratory investigations may be required. Also, a referral to a physical therapist or other specialists may be done in cases of complex conditions.

Charley horse- Management and Prevention

How Can It Be Treated?

The treatment usually depends on the underlying cause of the spasm. For example, if it is exercise-induced, stretches and massaging of the body part will help in relaxing the muscle and thus, stop it from contracting.

Usage of heating pads can accelerate the healing process and an ice pack helps to numb the area. Also, the doctor might prescribe you some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen if basic therapies do not seem to be helpful.

Recurrent cases of Charley Horse need more aggressive management. Prescription of antispasmodics can be expected. Along with it, physical therapy will prove to be beneficial. When it is an extreme case where none of the above-mentioned therapies work, surgery can be done as it will increase the space around the nerve and thus relieves the pressure. This method is helpful in cases of nerve compression.

Some of the following stretches may prove to be beneficial when the spasm is in your legs:

1.Standing up.

2.Stepping the non-affected leg into a lunge.

3.Straightening of the affected leg and lunging forward on the leg that is in front.

4.Standing up on the tips of the toes for a few seconds that leads to stretching of the calf muscles.

How Can it Be Prevented?

Identification of the cause of the occasional Charley Horse is the initial step toward prevention of it. The following steps will help to prevent getting the spasms in the future:

1.Stretching before and after doing exercise.

2.Avoiding doing exercise of the same muscles on consecutive days.

3.Avoiding exercising on extreme or severe weather days.

4.Drinking enough water throughout the day.

5.Drinking beverages that contain electrolytes.

6.Stretching the body before going to bed.

Charley House is a basic condition that is characterized by muscle spasms and can occur to anyone at any time. These conditions are usually treatable or preventable. It has to be noticed that any pain due to muscle spasm does not last more than a day and if it continues to happen, medical attention is required. Now, with the help of online medical platforms, it has become easy to get consulted about your queries anywhere anytime. Hence, consult an expert online to know more details about it.


Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Main Cause of Charley Horse?

A Charley horse is a condition that is primarily caused by a direct blow or a sudden extra stretch of the muscle. However, they are frequently caused by a strain or a loss of muscle strength during exercise.


How Can I Get Rid of a Charley Horse in My Calf?

The following are various methods that can help you in getting rid of a Charley horse in your calf:
- Massage.
- Bathing with warm water.
- Usage of a heating pad in order to relax the muscle.
- Ice packs can also be used.
- Over-the-counter pain medications, such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen.
But if all these measures are not helpful, proper medical treatment is warranted.


Can a Charley Horse Indicate a Blood Clot?

Yes, Charley horse can indicate a blood clot. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition that occurs when a blood clot develops in the deep veins of your body, usually in the affected individual’s legs. It can be accompanied by symptoms such as swelling and Charley horses.


What Happens When I Am Affected With Charley Horse?

A Charley horse usually occurs when muscles abruptly cramp or tighten. This results in severe pain. The condition commonly affects the calf muscle. This sudden and uncontrollable spasm like pain can usually occur only for a short period. It usually resolves on its own or with certain home remedies. Complications are rare.


How Long Can a Charley Horse Hurt?

When the spasm is mild, the Charley horse's pain can last only for ten minutes. But in conditions where the contracting muscles do not relax for a longer period, the pain can be quite severe. This pain can occur at any part of the day for a few hours to even days or weeks.


What Are the Foods I Can Eat Inorder to Prevent Charley Horses?

The following are the foods that you can eat in order to prevent Charley horse:
- Bananas.
- Sweet potatoes.
- Avocados.
- Beans and lentils.
- Melon.
- Watermelon.
- Milk.


What Are the Various Foods That Can Trigger Leg Cramps?

Foods with very little potassium, calcium, or magnesium content such as cabbage, red carrot, and cauliflower can cause leg cramps. In addition to that, the intake of certain medications prescribed for hypertension, such as diuretics, can deplete these minerals in the body.


How Can I Get Relief From a Charley Horse at Night?

The following changes in your routine can help you relieve from a Charley horse at night:
- Stretch your body before bedtime.
- Drink plenty of water before you go to sleep.
- Wear comfortable loose fabrics and avoid wearing tight clothes during sleep.
- Massage your legs gently at night.
- If pain persists, over the counter pain medication can be taken.


How Can One Differentiate Between a Charley Horse and a Cramp?

A sustained muscle spasm is known as a muscle cramp. The muscles of the leg, especially those at the thigh, back of the thigh, and the calves region, are the ones that are most susceptible to cramp. A “Charley horse” is another term for a muscle cramp. The only difference is that a muscle cramp can non specifically occur at any skeletal muscle of the body, but a Charley horse primarily affects the lower extremities.


What Mineral Deficiencies Can Cause Charley Horse?

A deficiency of magnesium is the primary cause of muscle spasms. Magnesium deficiency has been noted to be the leading cause of Charley Horse.


What Are the Symptoms of Charley Horse?

The following are the symptoms of a Charley horse spasm:
- Uncomfortable muscle contractions.
- Severe pain.
- Severe muscle soreness that can last anywhere from a few hours to a day.


How Can Magnesium Deficiencies be Corrected to Prevent Muscle Cramps?

Magnesium citrate is the most effective type of supplement in people who suffer from magnesium deficiencies. Correcting magnesium deficiency can improve the prognosis of a muscle cramp that is already present in your body, and it can also prevent you from muscle cramps in the future.


Can Bananas Help in Relieving Charley Horses?

Bananas are a great source of potassium. They are also noted to have magnesium and calcium in them. These three nutrients are vital to easing muscle cramps. Thus bananas are popular and a quick choice for cramp relief.


How Do You Relieve a Charley Horse Naturally?

The following are some natural remedies for Charley horse:
- Put your affected barefoot on a cold surface.
- As soon as a leg cramp occurs, pull your toes up immediately towards your knee, and it might get resolved sometimes at the very instant.
- Usage of magnesium oil.


What Can a Person Affect With Charley Horse Drink?

A person affected by a Charley horse should drink plenty of liquids. A mix of honey and apple cider vinegar in a water base is also noted to provide significant relief to a Charley horse.


Can I Get a Charley Horse in My Toes?

Yes, Charley horses can occur in any part of the limbs, and toes. A Charley horse always presents with a sharp, tightening pain in the affected region.


What Are the Various Home Remedies for Charley Horse?

The following are some home remedies for Charley horse:
- Massage with Epsom salts.
- Use a heating pad.
- Use an ice pack.
- Take over the counter pain relievers.
- Use camphor oil massage for pain relief.
- Take rest to avoid excess pain and discomfort.
It is not advised to go for home remedies in case of prolonged pain. When you have a Charley horse that does not resolve with home remedies, consult a doctor immediately.

Article Resources

Last reviewed at:
14 Sep 2022  -  4 min read




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