Few things spoil the enjoyment of a good exercise session or a peaceful night’s sleep like the sudden onset of a leg cramp, or charley horse. A leg cramp is a prolonged, involuntary muscle spasm, most commonly involving your calf. Although certain medical conditions and medications may cause leg cramps, they usually occur during or following exercise. Previously thought to be due to electrolyte depletion, experimental evidence supports the prevailing theory that charley horses develop primarily due to a transient nerve imbalance of the leg muscles. Simple physical measures typically alleviate leg cramps within seconds to minutes. Preventive strategies reduce the frequency of legs cramps if you are prone to these painful spasms.
Things You'll Need
Interrupt an Ongoing Cramp
Stop all physical activity if a charley horse develops during physical exertion. Because fatigue provokes leg cramps, resting helps the muscle relax and release the involuntary contraction.
If you have a leg cramp in your calf, stretch the muscle by standing on both feet with bent knees. If pain prevents you from standing, sit in a safe location and bend your ankle toward your shin, raising your foot toward your kneecap. Use your hands to pull your foot gently toward your shin if you cannot voluntarily move your foot. For a cramp in the front of your thigh, brace yourself against a sturdy object and bend your knee while gently pulling your heel toward your buttocks. You can also perform this stretching maneuver while lying on your side. If you develop a cramp in the back of your thigh, raise your straightened leg forward with your ankle bent toward your shin. Try resting your heel on a stair or another sturdy raised object to help with your stretch.
Massage the cramped muscle with your hands by stroking it firmly until the contraction subsides.
If the cramp persists and you are at home, apply heat to the affected muscle using an electric heating pad, hot water bottle or microwavable heat pack. Leave the heat in place for 15 to 20 minutes to relieve pain and promote muscle relaxation.
Continue resting for several minutes after the charley horse passes. Resuming physical activity with a fatigued muscle frequently leads to additional spasms.
Stop Leg Cramps from Occurring
Exercise regularly to maintain your leg muscles. Lack of exercise causes loss of muscle mass, or atrophy, which can lead to leg cramps when you exert yourself.
Warm up and stretch before exercising. Include calf, hamstring and quadriceps stretches to prevent leg cramps.
Avoid overexerting yourself while exercising. Overworked muscles are more likely to cramp than are those exercised to their usual capacity. Gradually build your leg muscle strength and endurance with small, incremental increases in your exercise routine.
Perform calf, hamstring and quadriceps stretches after exercising. Stretching reduces the likelihood that the nerves to your leg muscles will trigger a charley horse.
Eat a healthful diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables to ensure an adequate supply of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other minerals that support normal muscle function.
References and Resources"Physiology of Sport and Exercise"; Jack H. Wilmore et al.; 2007
The Science of Sport: A Novel Theory for Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps
MedlinePlus: Charley Horse
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Muscle Cramp
VirtualMedicalCentre.com: Muscle Cramps