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Anatomy of a Charley Horse

No one knows the origin of the term Charley Horse, but when you are in the grips of one of these awful nocturnal cramps you don't really care if it comes from an early baseball player or an injured race horse. You just want the pain to stop. And just like the origin of the expression, no one has yet to pinpoint a single cause for these cramps. There are many theories as to why they happen — what actions or inactions contribute to them. There are also many steps you can take to prevent them.

A Charley Horse could be caused by overexertion of the muscles, structural disorders like flat feet, prolonged standing on concrete, prolonged sitting, inappropriate leg positions while sedentary (another reason why crossing your legs is really a no-no), or dehydration. Some alternative health practitioners believe magnesium and/or calcium levels are too low, leading to the cramping.

No matter why you get them, you want to know what you can do to avoid them. I suggest staying well hydrated and stretching your calves regularly throughout the day, before bed, and especially if you were wearing high heels for an extended period of time. Light exercise before bed can also help, as can keeping your blankets loose at the foot of your bed since the tight sheets can force the muscles of the foot and calve to engage and then cramp.

Interested in knowing what to do when you get a Charley Horse? Then


Here are a few ways to ease the cramping and the pain:

  • Walk on or jiggle the affected leg and then elevate it.
  • Stretch the calf by straightening your knees and flexing your foot toward your knee.
  • Increase the stretch by actively pulling your toes upward toward your knee.
  • Take a hot shower or warm bath, or apply an ice massage to the cramped muscle.

Sure do hope these help and try to remember to breathe while you are in the throes of a Charley Horse.


Join The Conversation
sepiaraven sepiaraven 9 years
I get these quite often, though not as much as I used to. I get them in my feet every time I go swimming though.
JaimeLeah526 JaimeLeah526 9 years
I hate these things. I have flat feet. Weirdly I'd never had one until my husband told me about them and I've had a few since then.
kia kia 9 years
Oh, a Charley Horse is a calf cramp. Hmmmm, I never knew and I hate it when they happen to me.
aimeeb aimeeb 9 years
I hate these!!!!!!
colormesticky colormesticky 9 years
Charlie horses and chicken toes are the bane of my existence.
underyourwaves underyourwaves 9 years
No matter how many times I have them, these never stop hurting! I always get them at around 4 AM and I have to whimper and suck it up or risk waking up my entire family.
ElleJay ElleJay 9 years
i ALWAYS get these in my calf in the middle of the night and freak out
thelorax thelorax 9 years
uptown_girl - yeah, I do get them in my feet but I have kinda weird toes are freakishly long, and my 2nd toe, not my "big" toe, is the longest. I do wake up sometimes with Charlie Horses and they are truly AWFUL!! I heard that birth control pills can cause them...has anyone else heard this? "Leg cramps" are one of the listed possible symptoms...
nikodarling nikodarling 9 years
uptown_girl. I get the feet cramps too! So uncomfotable, and hard to stretch out.
uptown_girl uptown_girl 9 years
OMG, Yes, these are the most painful things EVER. Especially to be woken by them. I get the frequently on & off. As in, I go through spells where I have a couple a week for 2-3 weeks, then go 2-3 months without one, then back to having them 2-3 times a week. Weird. Does anyone else get these in their FEET specifically??? Those don't wake me up like the ones in my calves do, but they are SOOO painful. Usually it's a day where I've stood a lot, walked a lot, or wore uncomfortable shoes, and I try to stretch my feet & toes. OOOWWWEEEE.
KathleenxCouture KathleenxCouture 9 years
Oh wow I have only ever had one of these thank god but it was the most painful thing ever experienced besides cramps in my entire life. I was a dancer throughout my childhood and high school years and had a huge performance that night and didn't stretch out afterwards, anyways I was exhausted and went to be at like 9. It woke me up at 2 AM and didn't go away for like half an hour! I tried everything to get it to go away and finally when it did I couldn't sleep because I was so scared it would come back hahaha
Francoisehardly Francoisehardly 9 years
I hate those! And it's always at 5 or 6 in the morning exactly. I haven't gotten any recently though and thank goodness for that.
KrisSugar KrisSugar 9 years
a charley horse in your butt is the WORST! I got one at a baseball game a few weeks ago, i guess from sitting on the hard bleachers. it hurt SO bad! i kept shifting back and forth from each side, and the people right behind us thought I was tooting! we never laughed so hard!
girlnone girlnone 9 years
I find that instead of stretching my calf muscles by straightening my leg (or worse, pointing my toes), it helps to do the opposite. Whenever I get a charley horse--well, after the first few moments of disoriented panic, when I've been woken up by a horrible stabby pain--I immediately bend my knee and bring my foot up to the back of my thigh. Seems to work. It's usually still sore the next day, though. It's so weird that they don't even know for sure what causes them.
jspeed jspeed 9 years
ugh I hate these things. Feels like being stabbed in the leg, and it's always sore the day after.
Puzzle2397 Puzzle2397 9 years
I don't think I've ever been woken up by one of these, but I have definitely experienced them after stretching out slightly while in bed. I don't know what exactly I do that brings them on. All I do know is that they're of the most godawful things ever.
The-FBGs The-FBGs 9 years
Charley Horses are the WORST. I find that if you have one in your calf, you can pull your toes up and it will help you stretch it out. Whatever you do though, don't point your toes down -- that only worsens the cramp!
foxytnns foxytnns 9 years
OMG! I get these things frequently and I literally freak out every single time. It always happens at night and I just feel like screaming and crying! My dad got one so badly that he passed out, hit his head and the ambulance had to come and take him to the ER! NO fun!
katyharper katyharper 9 years
I've always found that if a Charley Horse wakes me up, I IMMEDIATELY stand up and it lessens the pain. It hurts, but stand on the leg that's cramping and it kind of makes it go away. Man, those things are the WORST!!
shmuffin123 shmuffin123 9 years
My boyfriend has never gotten one of these and had no idea what a Charley Horse was until one night I woke up screaming with one. He had no idea what was going on I was just screaming CHARLEY HORRRRRSEEEEEE and he was like Charley who? :)
rivrchild rivrchild 9 years
I always thought they happen because in your sleep you've tensed your muscles or held them in the same position for too long a time. I almost had a similar pain in my foot the other night after sitting through Indiana Jones in a VERY cold movie theater - I had my bf sit on my feet to keep them warm for about the last hour of the movie, and when it was over, my foot felt like it had a "charley horse."
nikodarling nikodarling 9 years
I wish there was a simple explanation for these. I used to get them all the time when I was younger. My mom says she used to get them with all of her pregnancies.
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