Close look on a charley horse

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Charley horse is another name given for a muscle spasm. This can affect any muscle in the body but quite common in the legs. These spasms can be distinguished by the extremely uncomfortable contractions of the muscles.

The contracting muscles do not relax for several seconds or more and the pain can be intense. Some cases of charley horse can be severe enough to cause muscle soreness for a few hours or even a day. Remember that this is normal as long as the pain is not extended or recurring.

Most cases can be treated at home especially if they are infrequent. Nevertheless, frequent muscle spasms are often associated to underlying health conditions that warrant medical care. The doctor can determine the cause of frequent cases of charley horse.

What are the causes?

Various factors might trigger a muscle to spasm or cramp. The usual cause of charley horse includes the following:

  • Muscle injuries
  • Inadequate flow of blood to the muscles
    Charley horse
    The contracting muscles do not relax for several seconds or more and the pain can be intense.
  • Overuse of a specific muscle during exercise
  • Exercising under excessive cold or heat
  • Lack of proper stretching before exercise
  • Stress particularly in the neck muscles
  • Nerve compression in the spine
  • Using diuretics that can cause low potassium level
  • Depletion of minerals in the body
  • Dehydration

What are the risk factors?

The muscle spasms can occur any time at any age. Take note that this can manifest at any time of the day or night. A charley horse occurs more often among the following:

  • Infants
  • Athletes
  • Elderly
  • Obese individuals
  • Individuals who smoke
  • Those who use certain medications such as diuretics or statin drugs

Those who are obese are likely to suffer from the spasms due to the poor circulation in the legs. Athletes who often experience charley horse are due to overuse or muscular fatigue.


The treatment for charley horse usually depends on the underlying cause. In case it is induced by exercise, simple stretching and massage can help relax the muscles and prevent it from contracting.

A heating pad can hasten the relaxation process while an ice pack can numb the pain. In case the muscle is still sore, the doctor might recommend a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen.

When it comes to recurrent cases, aggressive treatment is required. Pain medications might be prescribed if ibuprofen could not provide relief. In severe cases, the doctor might prescribe an antispasmodic medication. Physical therapy can also help cope with the muscle spasms as well as prevent further complications.

In rare occasions, surgery might be recommended. If other treatment measures failed, surgery is the last option that involves widening the space around the nerve to alleviate the pressure. If the spasms are due to nerve compression, this can greatly help.

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