Healthy Living

Charley Horse: Prevention and Treatment

What is Charley Horse?

A charley horse is commonly referred to as muscle spasms, which can occur in any of the muscles present in the body, but most commonly in the legs. These muscle spasms are experienced as uncomfortable contractions of the muscles. If these contracting muscles do not relax even after several seconds or more, then the pain would start to get severe or unbearable. When an individual suffers from a severe case of charley horse, then it can lead to soreness of the muscle that would last from a few hours to all day. This is quite normal as long as the pain does not recur again or becomes prolonged for a longer duration.

Usually, charley horse can be treated at home when it is occurring infrequently. However, when you are suffering from a frequent case of muscle spasms, then they are known to be linked with a certain medical health issue that needs to be addressed properly by a doctor. The doctor can identify what is causing the frequent occurrences of charley horse and then implement certain treatments as well as suggest preventative measures. 

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There are a number of factors that can lead to cramping or spasming of the muscles, including:

  • Too much stress and in the neck and back muscles.
  • Inadequate flow of blood to the muscle.
  • Injury caused to the muscle.
  • Dehydration.
  • Consuming diuretics can lead to low levels of potassium in the body.
  • Not stretching properly before exercising.
  • Exercising in excessively cold or warm temperatures.
  • Depletion of minerals from the body, such as a low level of calcium, sodium and potassium in the blood.
  • During exercise, overusing certain muscles causing too much tension on those muscles.
  • Compression of the nerves which are present in the spine.

Many people have reported experiencing charley horses during sleep and it wakes them up. It is quite common to experience spasms in the muscles that can lead to charley horses while you are sleeping. A possible reason is that while you are lying in the bed in any awkward position for a very long time, then it can lead to charley horses or spasms.

Risk Factors

Charley horse or muscle spasms can occur to any individual irrespective of their age. Also, charley horse can occur at any time whether it is day or night, while you are asleep. The cases of charley horse are known to however occur more often in certain groups of people and those are, elderly individuals, those who smoke, athletes or sportsperson, any individual who is taking certain medicines such as raloxifene or diuretics, individuals who are obese, and infants. It has been noted that the individuals who are obese are very likely to experience charley horse due to the lack of proper circulation present in the legs. Athletes on the other hand are said to experience charley horse due to the condition of muscle fatigue or overuse of the muscles too frequently.


If an individual suffers from an occasional case of charley horse, then it would not need any kind of medical intervention or diagnosis, since certain prevention methods should stop it from occurring again. But there is a need for diagnosis by a doctor if you are suffering from recurrent and frequent cases of muscle spasms. For people who have charley horses more than once a week and there is no proper explanation as to why it has been occurring, that's when you should see a doctor. Especially if there is no improvement after trying preventative measures. 

In more extreme cases you may need to have MRI scans or another imaging technique to determine if there is a nerve compression that is leading to the frequent case of charley horse. The MRI machine is said to be making use of the magnetic field as well as the radio-waves for creating a detailed image of the individual’s internal structures. There may also be a need for carrying out laboratory work so as to rule out if charley horse has been occurring due to low levels of calcium, magnesium or potassium. Accordingly based on the cause, the doctor would then recommend you to visit a physical therapist or any other specialist doctor.


The treatment for charley horse will depend on what is causing the issue in the first place. The treatments include the following:

  • If the charley horse has been caused by exercise, then by carrying out stretches or by gently massaging that region, this can help in providing relaxation to the muscles. This also would stop the muscles from getting contracted.
  • The use of heating pads can also increase the process of relaxation, while the use of an ice pack can help in reducing or numbing the pain thus reducing the discomfort.
  • If you still have muscle spasms or soreness in the muscles, then the doctor would probably recommend you to go in for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen.
  • Having physical therapy can also help the individual in coping with the muscle spasms as well as preventing any kind of further complications.

In case if an individual is suffering from recurrent case of charley horses then there would be a need for immediate medical attention and aggressive form of treatment. The doctor would mostly prescribe certain pain relieving medications in case if ibuprofen is not effective. Also in severe cases of charley horses the doctor can also prescribe the use of antispasmodic medicines. When the case of charley horses becomes too extreme then the doctor would recommend to go in for the surgical route. When all the other forms of treatments have been failed or not shown to be effective enough then the surgery can help in enlarging the space that is present around the nerve so as to help in relieving pressure. This method can be helpful when the charley horses has been caused due to the nerve compression of the spine.

There are certain stretches as well as massages that can provide immediate relief and prevent pain related to charley horse. When you have a charley horse, with your hands apply gentle pressure to the site where the cramp is, so that it can immediately provide relief from pain. You can also make use of both thumbs to gradually apply pressure to the site of the spasms or the cramp and do it until the pain goes away.

These stretches can help relieve pain from charley horses:

  • Standing up straight.
  • The leg which is not experiencing any cramps in the muscle can be stepped ahead in the form of a lunge.
  • Then straighten the back of the leg which has been experiencing the cramp and then slowly lunge forward on to the front leg. This would give a proper stretch to the leg that has been experiencing cramps.

Another exercise would be to stand on the tips of the toes for a couple of seconds which would help in stretching the calf muscles properly. Note that all of the stretching should be carried out in a slow and gently manner, do not place too much pressure or else it can worsen it. Easy stretches which can keep calves and feet free from any cramps or spasms are mentioned below:

  • The basic calf stretch: this is a very commonly carried out calf stretch which is often used by runners. To carry out this stretch, first stand placing your arms against the wall wherein the arms should be properly stretched out. Now step back with the leg of the calf that has been affected. Lean forward slowly on the other leg and push gently against the wall with your hands. Slowly increase the pressure of the push. By carrying out this exercise you should feel a stretch occurring in the calf muscles as well as the back of the leg.
  • The towel stretch: this stretch should be carried out while you are sitting. In the seated position, you should keep stretching the legs in front of you. Point the toes of the affected foot towards the ceiling so that the leg gets engaged properly. Now take a towel or a neck tie and wrap it around the foot holding it with both the hands. Once you have the proper grip then you can lift the leg gently until you get a good stretch in the calf muscles.


Once you have properly identified the exact cause of the charley horses, the symptoms in such cases are easy to prevent. Take these steps to avoid any future cases of muscle spasms:

  • Drink lots of water and beverages that contain electrolytes.
  • Stretch your muscles before and after exercise.
  • Before you go to sleep, stretch.
  • When the weather is severe, do not exercise or carry out any strenuous activities.
  • On consecutive days, avoid exercising the same muscles.
  • Avoid alcohol or limit it. 
  • Have a balanced diet that includes foods which are a good source of magnesium, calcium and potassium.

If you are getting charley horses while exercising, the main strategy would be to stop whatever activity you are doing and hold the muscle that has been cramped in a gently stretched out position until the muscle cramp is resolved completely. If the cramp tends to occur when you are in the lying down position, then you may need to put weight on it and walk on the leg which has the muscle spasm. Athletes can suffer from frequent cases of charley horse, so they need to warm up before exercising and carry out certain stretches. Also, make sure that you stay properly hydrated throughout exercising. 

Reach out to a doctor if you are suffering from frequent cases or have unusual severe forms of spasms or cramps, which do not appear to be anywhere associated with exercise or those which do not show any signs of improvement even after carrying out proper massage and stretches.