How can something so benign be so painful?
A charley horse—and yes, that’s really how it’s spelled—can feel like a serious injury as it’s happening, especially if you’ve never had one before. The moment you feel your calf muscle tighten up, you need to step away from your row in Zumba class and clutch onto your leg in the corner, wondering what the heck you did to your body.
While these muscle cramps can feel scary, they’re more or less harmless. A charley horse is a spasm in the muscle, which is when a muscle contracts uncontrollably and you can’t get it to relax. Charley horses feel like a knot in the muscle that just. Won’t. Go. Away. Technically, these pains can happen in any muscle in the body, but as you’re probably well aware, charley horses most commonly attack your poor calves.
While a charley horse is basically benign and no reason to panic, they can signal some potential problems in the body. These issues range from mild to serious, so even if you can tolerate the occasional cramp, fixing the source of the problem could prevent not just future charley horses, but also other more serious complications.
Here are five common things that might be giving you charley horses.
You exercise when you’re dehydrated. Your muscles need a healthy balance of water and sodium to function well. When that balance is off, your muscles become more vulnerable to sudden and uncontrollable spasms. Learn these surprising signs of dehydration to look for and how much water you should be drinking a day.
Your diet is lacking in potassium, calcium, or magnesium. Muscle cramps are associated with deficiencies in these vitamins, so making sure you’re getting enough of these may help ward off charley horses and other cramps. Here are the top food sources of calcium, high-potassium foods, and foods rich in magnesium. (FYI, spinach is a great source of all three.)
You’re overusing or injuring the muscle. Workouts that target specific muscles again and again (and again and again) may make your muscles more susceptible to spasms and other injuries. It’s common for swimmers to get charley horses, for example, thanks to all those scissor kicks. Try to diversify your workouts: You might run one day, do yoga the next, and lift weights the next. This fitness method—known as cross-training—not only prevents overusing certain muscles, but it also ensures that you strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments all over your body, which helps prevent everyday injuries. Oh, and don’t forget to include rest days between workouts.
You don’t stretch enough. Better flexibility can loosen up your muscles, which may reduce the chances of a charley horse. Stretching can help during a charley horse, too. Flex your toes of the affected leg toward your face, which helps pull the calf muscle in the opposite direction of the cramping, contracted muscle.
Your shoes need more arch support. If you have flat feet, studies show you might be more vulnerable to charley horses (and more). Wearing well-fitted shoes and insoles might help prevent these unpleasant cramps. Even if Dr. Scholl would give your foot structure a thumb’s up, your shoes may be giving you charley horses if you always wear high heels, which puts the calf muscle in a shortened position for long stretches of time, thus increasing the likelihood of a charley horse.
Wanna switch up your workouts and improve your flexibility? Here’s a 10-minute yoga routine with stretches for beginners.
Are you drinking enough water? AARP, 2017. (Accessed on February 11, 2022 at https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-06-2012/dehydration-signs-and-symptoms.html.)
Charley horse. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017. (Accessed on February 11, 2022 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002066.htm.)Charley horse pain relief. AARP, 2012. (Accessed on February 11, 2022 at https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-02-2012/charley-horse-leg-cramps-relief-tips.html.)