Start of Main Content
Health Information | 02/23/2017

What is a Charley Horse?

By  Dr. Scott Souther
Charley horse is just another name for an incredibly uncomfortable muscle contraction or spasm. While this painful contraction can occur in any muscle in the body, a charley horse is more specific to muscles in the legs. The exact origin of the term “charley horse” is not known but was used as far back as the 1880s to describe a leg cramp common to baseball players.

What causes a charley horse?

There are many things that can cause you to develop a charley horse:
  • Exercise: while exercise, in general, is a good thing, overuse of a muscle during a work-out or physical activity, not stretching adequately before or after exercise, or exercising in excessive heat or cold are all culprits that can bring on a charley horse
  • Nerve compression in the spine
  • Inadequate blood flow to the muscle or muscle injuries
  • Mineral imbalances, either from taking diuretics which can lead to low potassium levels or from other conditions that result in too little calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium in the blood
  • Dehydration
  • Sleeping or sitting in an uncomfortable position for a long period of time

How can you treat a charley horse?

  • Massages or stretches can help alleviate the pain:
    • Using your hands or just your thumbs, steadily apply pressure to the site of the cramp and massage the area to relieve pain
    • Stretch out the problematic leg muscles
  • As heat relaxes muscles, the use of a heating pad can loosen the muscle and stop the contraction
  • Ice packs may work to numb the pain
  • If you often get a charley horse, physical therapy may help you cope with muscle spasms and prevent further complications
  • If you are on medications that can alter your electrolytes or you are on dialysis, cramping could be due to an electrolyte imbalance. In this case, those electrolytes could be replaced by diet or medication.

When should you contact your doctor?

  • Typically a charley horse is benign and should resolve with massage and stretching. If it continues to be bothersome or is not improving after a few days you should contact your doctor
  • If your muscle is still sore after trying at-home remedies, your physician may recommend medication, either a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or if this is not sufficient, a prescription for antispasmodic medications (muscle pain suppressers)
  • In extreme cases where your muscle continues to cramp, especially if your muscle spasms are caused by nerve compression, your physician may recommend surgery to enlarge the space around your nerve to relieve pressure

About The Author

Dr. Scott Souther

Dr. Scott Souther is an internist at our Braintree practice and is board certified in internal medicine. He received his medical degree from the American University of the Caribbean, Plymouth. He completed his residency and internship at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence.

More from this author