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What is a Charley Horse and How Can you Reduce or Eliminiate Them?

Have you heard anyone scream out “charley horse!” It’s one of those old American expressions that has outlived its folklore. But while the origin of this term may be faint, the experience is not. In fact, it can be unbearably painful.

While a charley horse can occur without explanation, there is much we know about this problem, such as what it is, where it occurs, its risk factors, and how to ease the pain.

What is a Charley Horse?

A charley horse refers to an uncomfortable muscle spasm or muscle cramp that causes ferociously painful contractions in the muscles. We’ve all seen how quickly they can drop an elite athlete, but they’re also common among those without the proclivity for sports. From athletes to the elderly, charley horses can affect those with underlying conditions and those without.

Maybe you’ve had one yourself?

When a charley horse occurs, you will most likely feel a strong, painful involuntary contraction of skeletal muscles in the body. When severe, these muscle cramps can continue for hours, potentially days, following recovery from the initial cramp.

It goes without saying that this pain can negatively impact sleep, mood, and quality of life.

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What Causes a Charley Horse?

Cramping is one of those conditions we don’t yet fully understand.

There is evidence to support the mainstream explanation of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. For example, one study found that adding saline, or saltwater, to the drinking water of mill workers significantly reduced muscle cramping. In effect, it worked as an effective muscle spasm treatment.

It’s also possible that our nerves might misfire. Muscles contract to move our body. As they shorten, they pull the bones they are attached closer together. That’s why when you flex your bicep, the muscle appears bigger, and your hand moves toward your shoulder. Each muscle has a particular nerve that supplies it; like a telephone wire, the nerves enable the brain to communicate with the muscle and tell it what to do.

Charley horses tend to occur when muscles are in a shortened, contracted position, like a flexed bicep. Because the muscle is ‘bunched up,’ so to speak, it is less tense. This changes the way the muscle and the nervous system communicate with each other. It may cause the nerves to “talk too much,” telling the nerves to contract too hard.

Some experts believe this could be an important part of what causes a charley horse.

Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and misfiring nerves are the most common explanations. But there are also known risk factors for muscle cramps.

Risk Factors for Muscle Cramps

There are several groups of people who face a higher risk of muscle spasm: older adults, athletes, pregnant women, and people with thyroid and nerve disorders.

Why older adults get muscle cramps

Research indicates that 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 have experienced muscle cramping within the past 2 months of their lives. In those over 80, every 2nd person was well acquainted with muscle spasms. These can cause distress, disrupt restful sleep, and reduce quality of life.

According to neurologist Dr. Robert Miller, older people are at greater risk for cramps.

“As we age, there are changes in both nerves and muscles. Muscles get weaker and smaller. And nerves undergo some decay, with the tissue becoming thin. And when that happens, the connections that the nerves make to the muscle become less secure,” says Miller.

Why are athletes prone to muscle cramps?

Whether recreational or competitive, many athletes know the experience of a charley horse all too well. You may have seen your favorite tennis or NFL players hitting the ground, frantically trying to stretch out a painful cramp. For some, this problem is career-ending.

Athletes are most likely to experience charley horses at the beginning of the season when their body isn’t yet fully conditioned yet. Additionally, they are more prone because they are more likely to experience dehydration and electrolyte loss.

For this reason, adequate warming up, healthy nutrition, and adequate hydration is key to staying in the game.

Why are pregnant women prone to muscle cramps?

Plenty of women will assert that pregnancy can place a great deal of pressure on the human body. This includes cramps, which are known to occur particularly at night.

One study investigated calf cramping during pregnancy. The researchers found that in the first trimester, muscle spasms affected just over 1 in 10 women. In the second trimester, that figure rose to 28.2%. And in the third trimester, just over half of the pregnant women studied complained of this problem. The study concluded that hypertension could be the most significant risk factor.

According to Amanda Selk, an OB/GYN in Toronto, it is not clear why muscle cramps, particularly in the back on the calves, occur in pregnant women. Theories include pronounced fatigue, poor circulation, pressure on the uterus, and calcium or magnesium deficiencies, and dehydration.

In general, they are thought to be harmless. But if they occur frequently and/or are severely painful, the patient should consult his or her primary care physician or OB/GYN

Thyroid disorders and muscle cramps

Hypothyroidism, a sluggish thyroid, and hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid, both commonly contribute to muscle weakness, pain, and cramping. Hypothyroidism, however, is more likely to trigger charley horses due to the overproduction of thyroid hormones that affect the muscles.

Please note: CBDMEDIC™ products are designed for minor muscle and joint pain only, not for progressive or chronic conditions. This information is for educational purposes only. Please speak to your primary care physician or specialist before attempting to handle your symptoms on your own.

Nerve conditions and muscle cramps

When a nerve gets damaged, it loses its ability to correctly tell a muscle what to do. This can result in twitching and painful muscle cramps. Sometimes this is related to a single nerve in one limb, like a leg. At other times, it is due to a body condition, like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

[Please note: CBDMEDIC™ products are designed for minor muscle and joint pain only, not for progressive or chronic conditions. This information is for educational purposes only. Please speak to your primary care physician or specialist before attempting to handle your symptoms on your own.]

Where in the Body are You Most Likely to Experience Muscle Cramps?

While a charley horse can happen to any muscle, there are more common areas. These include:

  • Calves. Calf cramps are the most common part of the body to experience muscle spasm
  • Thighs, including hamstring cramps and leg spasms
  • Feet. A charley horse in the toes can be very uncomfortable!
  • Hands
  • Arms
  • Abdomen
  • Along the ribcage

How to Prevent or Reduce a Charley Horse?

While it is not clear exactly what causes a charley horse, there are lifestyle changes that you can take to alleviate the pain and stiffness.

To relieve your muscle cramps or to take preventative steps, try:

  • Lightly stretching the area
  • Participating in regular physical exercise
  • Gently massaging the affected muscle
  • Ensuring that you are adequately hydrated
  • Applying heat to tight muscles and ice to quell pain
  • Taking calcium and magnesium supplements to support healthy muscles and joints

Products specifically designed to ease discomfort may add additional relief, like CBD MEDIC™ Muscle & Joint Pain Relief Spray and Muscle & Joint Pain Relief Ointment. Charlotte’s Web also offers CBD Gummies that are perfect for calming exercise-induced inflammation, making them an ideal part of your athletic routine.

If you have a history of muscle spasms at night that negatively impacts on your sleep, you may also wish to take a supplement that supports a healthy sleep cycle.

Key Takeaways

Muscle cramps, aka “charley horses,” are quite common, yet the exact cause is not fully understood. But by understanding what they are and the steps you can take to treat them, you are in the best position to deal with the painful symptoms.

To limit or avoid muscle spasms, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes getting adequate nutrition, hydration, sleep, and exercise. And if pain strikes, try a little stretching and light massage to get the relief you need.

If you are interested in learning more pain relief tips you can use in your daily life, check out our additional resources here.

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace medical diagnosis or treatment. Seek medical assistance for any injuries or serious conditions. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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