Has this ever happened to you? You’re running or swimming, or even sleeping soundly in bed, when a sharp pain seizes your leg and doesn’t let go. You’re left crumpled in a heap of hurt until it passes.
A leg cramp, known colloquially as a “charley horse,” occurs when a muscle in your leg contracts and doesn’t immediately relax. These muscle spasms can be incredibly painful and difficult to soothe. If you’re prone to charley horses, learn what causes them, how can you prevent them from happening, and what can you do about them once they start.
Leg cramps most often occur when muscles are injured or strained. They are more likely to occur if you allow yourself to become dehydrated, or are deficient in minerals such as calcium and potassium. Irritated nerves can also be responsible for chronic muscle spasms.
If you get a charley horse, either while exercising or at night, do not try to stretch the muscle at first. Depending on how tight the muscle is, you may tear the tissues and injure yourself. Instead, massage the area lightly with your fingers. Taking a hot bath or applying a hot compress can also help. Once the pain has passed, you may try to gently stretch the muscle. If some pain persists after the spasm has passed, you can take an anti-inflammatory pain medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, and apply ice to the area. A mentholated muscle rub may also help.
Here are some strategies for preventing future charley horses:
– Stretch regularly, especially before and after working out, and before bed.
– Wear good, comfortable, supportive shoes.
– Don’t overextend yourself. Whether working out or doing household chores, listen to your body and don’t push yourself beyond your capabilities.
– Drink plenty of water on a regular basis. During workouts, or on very hot days, switch to a sports drink to replace electrolytes lost through your sweat.
– Drink alcohol and coffee in moderation, as they can contribute to dehydration.
– Eat foods that are rich in potassium and magnesium, such as whole grains, bananas, dates, raisins, apricots, cabbage, broccoli, citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and fish.
– Eat the recommended daily allowance of dairy products, such as milk and cheese, and talk to your doctor about whether you would benefit from a calcium supplement.
– Make sure your bed sheets are loose. Tight-fitting sheets can forces the legs and feet into awkward positions.
For most people, charley horses are a mild and occasional annoyance. If you experience leg cramps on a regular basis, visit to your doctor. Frequent muscle spasms can indicate a more serious underlying condition requiring medical treatment and/or physical therapy.