Charley Horses Make Your Legs Want to Die. Here's How to Stop Them.

Charley Horse
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

It's 3am, and you've just been jolted out of bed by what feels like a knife in the back of your leg. In your half-conscious confusion, you wonder, What the hell just hit me?

It's a classic charley horse, though it's neither a horse nor a person named Charley. What exactly causes these moments of torture, and how can you prevent them from happening?

What the hell is a charley horse?

A charley horse is a painful, involuntary cramp -- basically, a muscle spasm. When this happens, your muscles contract, or cramp up, causing you to feel the most intense (and often agonizing) tightness for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

After that, there's no telling how sore you'll feel. If the charley horse lasted longer than 30 seconds, you may notice its lingering effects for more than a day.

Most people will experience these awful cramps in the feet and legs (especially the calves), but since your muscles are all over your body (duh), a charley horse can technically happen anywhere. Fun!

As for why it's called a "charley horse," there's not a single accepted story, though it appears to be related to baseball. One legend claims it was named after an actual horse that limped around a baseball diamond dragging a brush behind it. Another story asserts it was named after Charley "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who suffered from cramps in an era when people had way cooler nicknames.

Whatever the origin is, when you get one, it sucks.

Why do people get charley horses?

These wonderful shooting pains generally occur right before you wake up or shortly after falling asleep. This is most likely due to the fact that your body isn't moving and your blood isn't circulating properly.

You can also get a charley horse while exercising -- not that it's an excuse to skip the gym!

Alas, these aren't the only reasons a charley horse strikes. Some of the other causes include:

  • Dehydration or low amounts of potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium
  • Certain medications you're taking
  • Muscle fatigue or strain from overuse, too much exercise, or holding a muscle in the same position for a long time
  • Bad shoes

So your days and nights of lazing and boozing on the couch while you binge-watch Netflix definitely put you at risk for a charley horse. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Since counting minerals is probably not something you want to add to your already full to-do list, use these tips to avoid a charley horse instead:

  • Drink more water.
  • Use electrolytes when needed to offset extremely hot temps while outdoors.
  • Always replenish electrolyte stores after a workout.
  • Take care of your muscles (stretch, do yoga, take baths in epsom salt -- totally normal, dude).
  • Stop sitting for extended periods of time.
  • Ditch the heels and stick to flats.

What to do when a charley horse strikes

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being stuck in charley horse hell, there are a few tricks you can use to fight off the beast.

First, if you've just woken up and you're in bed with shooting pain in your leg, stand up. This will promote blood flow and kickstart circulation again. The same goes if you've been sitting too long.

Next, bust out the foam roller or start stretching your muscles. Applying direct heat can also help the muscle relax, followed by ice to ease the pain.

While you don't need to add a bunch of silly bubbles to enjoy the effects, soaking in an epsom salt bath -- especially after a grueling or extended workout -- helps prevent charley horses from happening in the first place, and can provide relief if you're mid-attack and happen to have an epsom salt bath ready. Otherwise, you might want to give something spicy a shot; there's some new evidence that suggests a mixture of chilies and ginger could help relieve cramping, albeit the kind you get from prolonged physical activity.

If all else fails and you still feel nagging soreness after a few hours or over a day, you might as well pop an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Keep in mind that another preventative measure you can take is to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercising. You may even need to up your potassium or electrolyte intake to combat the issue. And once you get it figured out, you can enjoy making it through the night without a violent, stabbing pain interrupting your slumber.

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Devan Ciccarelli is a writer and marketing specialist who'd rather get her beauty sleep than ride the charley horse wave of pain. Follow her on Twitter and share your favorite charley horse prevention tip @DevanCiccarelli.