Leg Cramps: Why We Get Them and What We Can Do About Them [3 minute read]
If you suffer from leg cramps, often called “charley horses,” you know how debilitating the pain is, and how it feels like there is nothing you can do to help it pass more quickly and less painfully. Stellis Health can help you sort through possible causes as well as helpful solutions for those pesky leg cramps that come on out of the blue and interrupt your life.
What are Leg Cramps?
Leg cramps are involuntary muscle pains in your foot, calf, or thigh that happen spontaneously. The cramp can cause your leg to spasm uncontrollably. Leg cramps, also known as charley horses, are generally not harmful, yet cause significant discomfort.
Leg cramps can feel like there is a tight, contracted knot in the muscle. The pain can range from mild discomfort, to painful, and even unbearable pain. The after-effect can be a short time period of waiting before using the muscle, to hours of enduring pain after the episode.
Who is Affected by Leg Cramps?
Charley horses are more likely to occur in older generations. As we age, our tendons shorten, and therefore pull on the surrounding muscles.
- Women are more likely to experience leg cramps
- 40 percent of teenagers have experienced leg cramps at night
- 60 percent of adults have experienced them at nighttime
Charley Horse Causes
Leg cramps can occur because of working long hours doing physical labor, especially in hot weather. Some medications and medical conditions can also cause muscle cramps. The leg cramps that happen for no known obvious reason are called “idiopathic” cramps. “Secondary” leg cramps typically happen as a side effect from another medical condition, and should be discussed with your provider.
Here are some common causes of idiopathic cramps:
- Inadequate blood supply to the area
- Involuntary nerve discharge
- Nerve compression
- Mineral depletion
Most muscle cramps occur in the foot, calf or thigh areas. Typically people feel sudden, sharp pain which may be followed by a hard, contracted knot of muscle tissue in the leg. Leg cramps are very common, especially at night time.
- Eat foods high in vitamins and magnesium
- Stay hydrated
- Stretch daily
- Stretching before exercise can help prevent tight muscles
- Wear comfortable shoes
- Limit alcohol
- Stop smoking
There are a variety of self-care remedies to help with leg cramps. Your provider can show you specific stretches to help prevent and alleviate muscle cramps. However, if you have followed all of the prevention tips and are still having leg cramps, you may be prescribed medication to relax your muscles.
What to Do if You Have a Charley Horse that Won’t Go Away
- Massage and Stretching. Gently stretch your leg, flex your foot and massage the affected area. Stretching the quadriceps and hamstrings can also be effective.
- Apply Heat or Cold. Using a warm pack or taking a hot bath can alleviate symptoms, alternatively try icing the area.
- Pain Medication. Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with the pain.
- Stand Up and Walk. Stand up and press your foot into the floor. Try wiggling your foot and leg around and walking it off.
- Elevate Your Leg. Elevate your leg until the cramp dissipates.
When to Worry About Leg Cramps
If you have severe, ongoing pain, please make an appointment to see one of our Stellis Health experts. Our providers will want to gather the following information:
- Medical history
- Stressors affecting your life
- Medications, supplements, and vitamins
- Your symptoms
- Your questions
If a cramp lasts more than 10 minutes, or the pain becomes unbearable, you should go to the emergency room.
Fun Fact on the Name Origin
The term “Charley horse” may have been named for a pitcher Charley Radbourne (Boston), nicknamed Old Hoss. He suffered from a leg cramp during a game in the 1880s. By combining his first name & his nickname, the term was born.