Leg Cramps, Better Known as Charley Horses

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

by John D. Burrow, DO

We all know that feeling, the feeling of a charley horse creeping up in our foot or leg. Whether you’re out for a run, watching a movie, or deep in sleep, a charley horse can attack at any time. This leg cramp can be unbearably painful and hard to relieve. These cramps, caused by muscle spasms, can last for several seconds or longer.

There a number of reasons that a muscle spasm can occur:
• Muscle injury
• Insufficient blood flow to the muscle
• Overuse of muscle
• Not stretching before physical activity
• Dehydration
• Lack of minerals in the body (calcium, potassium)
• Exposure to extreme hot or cold conditions
• Nerve compression

An occasional leg cramp does not require a medical diagnosis, unless they are reoccurring very frequently. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan can sometimes help determine the cause of leg cramps if they are severe.

Treatment for a leg cramp will depend on the cause. Infrequent cramps can usually be relaxed by stretching and self-massaging the area. Using an icepack will help numb the pain and relieve any muscle soreness. If the leg cramps are severe, anti-spasmodic medication can be prescribed to relax the muscles. If your cramps are caused by nerve compression, there are surgical options to enlarge the space around the nerve if spasms are extreme.

There are a few, simple steps you can take to avoid future leg cramps. Make sure to warm up and stretch before and after exercise. When exercising, alternate muscle groups that are worked so that you don’t work the same muscles day after day. Drinking water or sports drinks that contain electrolytes while exercising will help prevent cramps that are caused by dehydration.

A charley horse is usually harmless, and most of the time there is nothing wrong within the body. However, if you are experiencing frequent, painful leg cramps, please give us a call at 757.596.1900 to schedule an appointment. One of our experienced Orthopaedic physicians can check you out and find any problems that may exist.