Why Charley Horses?

Exactly what is a charley horse? This is a muscle cramp that is particularly in your calf muscles and an incredibly common condition that results in your muscles. They become tight, stiff and extremely painful. In an adult, there’s a good chance you’ve had one at some point or another during your lifetime. The name came from a tribute to Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourne, an 1880’s era baseball pitcher, who often suffered from muscle cramps during games. There is a second version that states the term came from a lame workhorse named Charley, who limped around doing various jobs around the baseball park in the 1880’s. Thus, whenever a baseball player would get injured or have a cramp in the lower legs, he would limp around and teammates would call him “Charley Horse”.

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reports, that about 1 in every 3 adults is affected by these muscle cramps in their lower limbs. Many times the pain is temporary and goes away on its own, but for some they interfere with sleep, their quality of life and daily activities. A study of more than 500 people aged 60 and older, revealed 31% reported being woken up by muscle cramps and 15% had cramps more than 3 times a month.

Charley Horses are most common in populations and scenarios such as:

  • During exercise

  • At nighttime and especially in the elderly

  • In pregnant women

  • In people with neurological disease

  • During kidney dialysis

It is unclear what triggers these charley horses, but the cramp may be related to a rapidly firing nerve that causes the muscle to tense up. There are medications associated with muscle cramps that include statin cholesterol-lowering drugs, ACE inhibitors, certain asthma drugs, diuretics and more. Factors may increase your risk of a charley horse:

  • Poor blood circulation in your legs

  • Muscle fatigue

  • Dehydration

  • Mineral deficiencies, including magnesium, potassium or calcium

Woman With Muscle PainAbout 80% of Americans are not getting enough magnesium and may be deficient. Some research shows only about 25% of US adults are getting the daily amount of 310 to 320 mg for women and 400 to 420 for men. Often thought of as primarily a mineral for your heart and bones, this is misleading. Low levels of magnesium could be to blame for your charley horses. It is necessary for activating muscles and nerves that could be a reason for those cramps. Low potassium can also trigger a charley horse. Eat plenty of organic leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds every day and drinking fresh green vegetable juice will also help. Another reason for muscle cramps could be too little calcium.

You have little or no notice when experiencing a charley horse. If it starts when you are lying down, get up and put weight on your foot. Walking around will help increase that blood circulation to the muscles and will help to soothe and relax the cramp. Performing some stretches can also help. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath may help to relieve the pain, along with massaging the area and applying a heat pack.

Stay well hydrated for muscle cramp preventions and drink enough pure filtered water so that the urine is a pale yellow in color. Do regular stretching exercises on your legs to help reduce your risk of a charley horse.

-Dr Fredda Branyon