A charley horse is a popular colloquial term in Canada and the United States of America for painful spasms or cramps in the leg muscles, typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to about a day. It can also refer to a bruise on an arm or leg and a bruising of the quadriceps muscle of the anterior or lateral thigh, or contusion of the femur, that commonly results in a haematoma and sometimes several weeks of pain and disability. In this latter sense, such an injury is known as dead leg. In Australia it is also known as a corked thigh or corky. It often occurs in contact sports, such as football when an athlete suffers a knee (blunt trauma) to the lateral quadriceps causing a haematoma or temporary paresis and antalgic gait as a result of pain. Another nuance for the term jolly horse is used to describe simple painful muscle cramps in the leg or foot, especially those that follow strenuous exercise.
Other times, the term can be used to refer to cramps in the foot muscles.
These muscle cramps can have many possible causes directly resulting from high or low pH or substrate concentrations in the blood, including hormonal imbalances, low levels of magnesium, potassium or calcium, dehydration, side effects of medication, or, more seriously, diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and neuropathy. They are also a common complaint during pregnancy.
What Is a Charley Horse?
Charley horse is another name for a muscle spasm. Charley horses can occur in virtually any muscle, but they are most common in the legs. These spasms are marked by extremely uncomfortable muscle contractions. The muscles don’t relax for several seconds or more, and the pain can be quite severe.
Charley horses are generally treatable at home, especially if they are infrequent. However, frequent muscle spasms are often linked to underlying health conditions that need medical treatment. Your doctor can help you determine the cause of frequent charley horses and implement treatments and preventive measures to increase your overall comfort.
What Causes a Charley Horse?
A number of factors may cause a muscle to cramp or spasm. The most common causes of charley horses include:
- inadequate blood flow to the muscle
- muscle injuries
- exercising in excessive heat or cold
- overuse of a specific muscle during exercise
- stress (most often in the neck muscles)
- not stretching before exercise
- nerve compression in the spine
- taking diuretics (often prescribed for high blood pressure), which can lead to low potassium levels
- mineral depletion (too little calcium, potassium, and sodium in the blood)
Risk Factors for Charley Horses
Muscle spasms can happen to anyone, at any age. To make matters worse, a charley horse can occur at any time—day or night. The spasms may even wake you up in the middle of the night.
Still, charley horses tend to occur more often in
- the elderly
- the obese
Diagnosing the Cause of Frequent Charley Horses
The occasional charley horse doesn’t require an official medical diagnosis. However, your doctor should investigate frequent, recurrent muscle spasms. A diagnosis is generally obtained through a physical examination. MRI scans may be helpful in determining whether nerve compression is the cause of frequent charley horses. An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create a detailed image of your body’s internal structures. If your doctor suspects that nerve damage or other complex causes are to blame, you may be referred to a physical therapist or other specialist.
Treatment for a Charley Horse
The treatment for charley horses depends on their underlying cause. If a charley horse is exercise-induced, simple stretches and massages can help relax the muscle and stop it from contracting. Heating pads can accelerate the relaxation process, while an ice pack can help numb the pain. If your muscle is still sore, your doctor may recommend a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen.
Recurrent charley horses require more aggressive treatment. Pain medications may be prescribed if ibuprofen isn’t enough to ease your discomfort. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe anti-spasmodic medication. Physical therapy can help you cope with muscle spasms and prevent further complications.
In extreme cases, surgery may be recommended. When all other treatments have failed, surgery can be used to enlarge the space around a nerve, relieving pressure on the nerve. If your spasms are caused by nerve compression, this may help.
Patients are increasingly turning to alternative practices to help treat their medical conditions. Some experts believe that vitamin B supplements may help prevent and treat charley horses. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, more research is required to prove this theory. Never take supplements without consulting your doctor first. Although seemingly harmless, supplements can interact with other vitamins and medications you take.
Preventing Charley Horses
Once you have identified the cause of the occasional charley horse, the symptoms are generally easy to prevent. Take these steps to help avoid future muscle spasms:
- Stretch before and after exercise.
- Avoid exercising the same muscles on consecutive days.
- Do not exercise in severe weather.
- Drink water throughout the day.
- Drink electrolyte-containing beverages, such as Gatorade.
- Stretch before going to bed.