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Quirky Questions: What causes a charley horse?

Jan 25, 2019 By One Medical

Updated January 25, 2019.

Q: What causes a “charley horse” and how do I prevent one from occurring?

A: While the origin of the term “charley horse” is unclear, its meaning is all too familiar: a sudden, involuntary spasm or cramp of a large muscle, typically occurring in the calf (gastrocnemius), thigh (quadriceps), or hamstring. A charley horse can be caused by a direct blow or sudden stretch of the muscle, but most of the time they’re caused by strain or fatigue during exercise. If you aren’t properly conditioned or if you haven’t adequately warmed up before physical activity, your muscles may not receive sufficient blood flow, which can result in cramping. Cramps are also more likely to occur if your body is low in minerals like sodium, calcium, and potassium, which play critical roles in muscle function. Poor diet, dehydration, and use of medications such as diuretics can all be associated with mineral depletion.

A charley horse will usually go away after a few hours or days. However, gentle massage or holding the muscle in a stretched position will help resolve the cramp more quickly. Ask your doctor or physical therapist if you are unsure about specific stretches for certain muscles. Tight muscles will often respond to heat as well. A warm water bottle or heating pad applied in 20 minute intervals will help increase blood flow to the cramping muscle.

To prevent muscle cramps, try these tips:

  1. Stretch regularly before and after exercising to increase your flexibility.
  2. Do workouts that match your level of physical fitness. Build up to harder, more intense workouts gradually rather than overusing and straining your muscles.
  3. Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of potassium-rich fruits and vegetables. Oranges and bananas are especially good sources of potassium.
  4. Stay well-hydrated before, during, and after exercise.

If you develop recurrent cramps that disrupt your sleep, make an appointment with your health care provider. In some cases, medication may be helpful.

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