Why You Keep Getting a Charley Horse

Many of us have experienced a charley horse at some point. When we were younger, the name may have even made us chuckle, especially if it was a friend who had one. Have you ever given any thought, though, to what a charley horse actually is?

At OrthoNeuro, our sports medicine specialists take great care in helping those who may be feeling the excruciating pain associated with a charley horse. If you are experiencing this regularly, make an appointment with us so that we can reduce your discomfort!

What Is a Charley Horse?

A charley horse is a popular name for a muscle spasm. A muscle spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles.

While muscle spasms can occur in any muscle throughout your body, they are most commonly felt in the leg. These spasms are generally brief, lasting only a matter of seconds. However, sometimes they can continue for a few minutes.

Are Charley Horses Serious?

While charley horse muscle contractions can be extremely uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, they are generally harmless unless caused by an underlying medical condition.

What Causes a Charley Horse?

Generally, a charley horse muscle cramp can be caused by:

  • Overuse
  • Injury
  • Dehydration (not having enough water/fluids)
  • Long periods of exercise and/or physical labor in extreme heat or cold
  • Having an inadequate blood flow to your muscles
  • Bypassing stretching before exercise
  • Taking diuretics
  • Mineral depletion (not having enough sodium, calcium, or potassium in your blood)
  • Having nerve compression in your spine
  • Stress (this most often can be felt in your neck muscles)

Muscle spasms do not discriminate. They can happen to anyone, regardless of their age.

Additional Muscle Spasm Risk Factors

Other risk factors for those experiencing regular muscle spasms include:

  • Certain medications (such as statin drugs or diuretics)
  • Medical conditions (such as Addison’s disease, kidney failure, diabetes, vascular disease, etc.)
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity (due to poor circulation in your legs)
  • Smoking
  • Age (infants and older adults)
  • Being an athlete (due to overuse or muscle fatigue)

What Do Charley Horses Feel Like and What Are Common Symptoms?

Charley horses can make your muscle feel very tight, almost as if there were a knot in your leg. They can be severely painful, making it difficult to walk.

Two of the most common symptoms of a charley horse include:

  1. Severe pain in the affected muscle
  2. Possible muscle soreness that can linger from a few hours to a whole day

When Are Charley Horses Most Common?

When a charley horse occurs, it will commonly happen at night while you are sleeping. Sometimes the pain is so sudden and shocking that it can awaken you from sleep.

There is not a firm understanding as to why this occurs at night. However, it is believed that the position you sleep in can have an effect. If you lay in bed in an awkward position for a long time, it may result in a muscle cramp.

Calf muscle spasms and calf pain can also occur while swimming, kicking, or running.

How Are Charley Horses Diagnosed?

If you occasionally have a charley horse, you do not need to get a diagnosis from a specialist. In contrast, if you frequently have recurring spasms (more than once a week without a known cause), you should seek medical treatment.

Charley horses are diagnosed by means of a complete review of your medical history and physical exam by your specialist. During your exam, your physician will look for and assess any tight or hard muscles that you may have that are tender to the touch.

If your specialist suspects that your spasms are the result of nerve damage, an MRI may be ordered to get a detailed diagnostic view of your internal structure. Your doctor may also recommend that blood tests be taken to identify if there are additional health conditions causing cramping.

Treatment Options for Charley Horses

Treatment options for a charley horse will vary from person to person, depending on the underlying cause of the leg cramp. Below you will find the treatment options in order of severity for exercise-induced muscle cramps.


Occasional cramps can be treated by means of:

  • Simple massages and stretches
  • Heating pad to relax your muscle
  • Ice pack to numb your pain
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication


If the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication is not bringing any relief, your doctor may prescribe pain medications.


If you are experiencing severe cases of muscle spasms, antispasmodic medication (a pharmaceutical drug used to suppress spasms) may be recommended. Additionally, physical therapy may also be recommended to assist in preventing further complications.


Extreme cases may require surgery to expand the space around the nerve and relieve pressure. This may be especially helpful if nerve compression is the reason behind your spasms.

How Can Charley Horses Be Prevented?

It can be of much relief to know that these spasms can be prevented. Charley horses can be prevented by taking the following steps:

  • Stretching before exercise to improve flexibility, followed by stretching again once finished
  • Alternating your workout regimen so that you are not exercising the same muscle back-to-back
  • Participating in activities that are modified to your specific abilities
  • Drinking plenty of water and beverages that contain electrolytes to stay hydrated
  • Avoid exercising in extreme weather
  • Stretching before going to bed

If you have frequent, recurring muscle spasms, you should seek professional help from our specialists at OrthoNeuro. We would love to provide the relief that you need. Schedule an appointment at one of our 7 offices in the Greater Columbus area today!

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