Charley horse (or charlie horse) is a popular colloquial term in Canada and the United States for painful involuntary spasms or cramps in the leg muscles, typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to about a day. It is less likely to refer to a bruise on an arm or leg and a bruising of the quadriceps muscle of the anterior or lateral thigh, or contusion of the femur, that commonly results in a haematoma and sometimes several weeks of pain and disability. In this latter sense, such an injury is known as dead leg. Dead leg and charlie horse are two different kinds of injury: a dead leg involves someone or something hitting a leg, causing it to go numb. A charlie horse involves the muscles contracting without warning, and can last from a few minutes or a few days. It often occurs in contact sports, such as football when an athlete suffers a knee (blunt trauma) to the lateral quadriceps causing a haematoma or temporary paresis and antalgic gait as a result of pain.
The term can also be used to refer to cramps in the foot muscles. These muscle cramps can have many possible causes directly resulting from high or low pH or substrate concentrations in the blood, including hormonal imbalances, dehydration, low levels of magnesium, potassium or calcium (although the evidence has been mixed), side effects of medication, or, more seriously, diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and neuropathy. They are also a common complaint during pregnancy.. Being physically un-fit can also be a main causing factor for the Charley Horse.
Relief is usually given by either massaging or stretching the foot, ankle or knee in the opposite direction of the spasm. Immediate relief is conferred by standing on the cramping leg as soon as possible to counter the muscle tightening signal. .
Colloquial advice suggests that dietary deficiency of potassium (found richly in bananas and many vegetables) or excessive loss of potassium (such as from sweating due to exercise) are common causes of these spasms.
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- What works? Research summarized at PubMed Health.