This piercing pain affects 1 in 3 adults

This piercing pain affects 1 in 3 adults

Many of us have been a victim of the ever-throbbing Charley Horse — in the midst of a sound sleep, you suddenly are awakened by an agonizing pain in your leg muscles. Sometimes, the pain can be so unbearable, it leaves you kicking off your sheets, screaming for help or in tears.

A Charley Horse can seem like the pain will never end. If the pain affects you, know you are not alone; 1 in 3 adults experience night muscle cramps.

“Prevention of muscle cramps can be frustrating for patients and vexing for their health care providers, as there is no standard of treatment,” says Dr. Brian Oostman, a family medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group in Aurora, Ill.

A 2012 study from the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research looked at 80 adults who experienced extremely painful muscle cramps about once a week in their calves or lower legs. These cramps can be described as spur-of-the-moment muscle “contractions” that have a fire-like sensation at rates up to 150 per second. Often, the cramps caused great sleep disruption and discomfort.

Through conducting a survey amongst participants, researchers gained a deeper understanding of the type of pain people were experiencing during muscle cramps. The survey found 89 percent of the participants were already asleep when cramps ignited, and the pain occurred during a wide variety of times throughout the night. Experiencing soreness around the calf muscles was a common side-effect the next day. And some people experienced day cramps, when sitting or climbing stairs.

What causes these unbearable muscle cramps?

The researchers discovered cramps can form from a number of factors: a scary dream, poor blood flow to legs, exercising too little or even over-exertion of the leg muscles.

The most frequent culprit of these muscle cramps seems to be your sleeping position. The researchers explain each person’s sleep patterns are unique, and when twisting your body in a particular way, you can be more inclined to cramping. Additionally, unconsciously performing movements with your feet play a role. For example, pointing your toes while asleep is a common Charley Horse trigger.

Taking preventative measures are key to help reduce your chance of becoming a victim of muscle cramps, but it’s important to keep in mind these strategies may not guarantee complete cure from muscle cramps.

“To prevent muscle cramps, I advise people to stay well-hydrated, eat a balance diet rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium, stretch each day – especially before exercise and avoid plantar flexion (pointing the toes) when sleeping,” says Dr. Oostman.

If you get a cramp or Charley Horse, Dr. Oostman recommends trying the following suggestions:

  1. If the cramp occurs in the leg, stand on the affected limb.
  2. Heat can help relax the muscle, especially an Epsom Salt bath.
  3. Ice can help dull the pain.
  4. If there is residual pain after the cramp resolves, NSAIDs may be helpful, but you should check with your doctor before taking.

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  1. I suffer from Charley Horse pain at night. I am often awaken usually between 2 and 3 am in extreme pain(tears falling). I take statins(Crestor) and am told that is sometimes a side affect. I have even decreased my dose(advised by md) and adjusted the timing of taking the medication and nothing helps. I did stop taking the medication and within 2 days the cramps stopped. Absolutely nothing helps.

  2. i often get these cramps during night when i stretch legs to turn over. often have to get out of bed pressing tip of foot to floor and pain straight up leg. walk daily outside, eat ok, but if i don’t get up and fix this god awful cramp, its excruciating makes me GET UP. drink lots of fluids daily. what can i do to stop this from happening again?1/11/2019

  3. I was experiencing these terribly painful leg cramps 4 nights per wk, as described, sometimes several times in one night. I was recently treated for severe anemia with iron infusions and the cramping has decreased to 2 times per month. I believe the iron deficiency contributed to my leg cramps .

  4. Two things help: get out of bed and bend over the bed (standing on the floor) – like a jackknife.
    Also the homeopathic tablets by Hylands (Leg Cramps PM) help greatly and I can go back to bed without any recurrence.

  5. I have suffered off and on for years from leg cramps. I have too found that if I overexert the legs during the day by either walking too much, walking up and down stairs a lot, wearing high heels, and positioning my legs with pointed toe or turning over in my sleep will set off excruciating pain. If I can get out of the bed quickly I try to step on that foot to release the cramp. Sometimes it goes up into the upper thigh muscles and then it is too hard to stop it cramping.
    I keep a leg cramp supplement by my bed and immediately take 1-2 depending how bad. Also keep Tonic water close by, it seems to release the cramping. My doctor told me years ago about putting small bars of soap in bed under the sheet. Strangely it seems to work if I put 3-4 hotel size bars of soap in bed and change them as needed every 2-3months.

  6. I seem to get these cramps only when my diet is low in calcium. When I was traveling in Colombia in 2017, I awoke one night to agonizing charleyhorse cramps. Then I remembered that I hadn’t drunk milk a single morning as part of my breakfast, as is my custom at home. Milk isn’t offered in Colombian hotels or restaurants, but you can order hot chocolate made with milk, so that’s what I started doing. The cramps didn’t come back.

  7. Marcia Vander Meer January 11, 2019 at 3:17 pm · Reply

    I get a leg cramp from my leg outside the covers and it gets cold. Warming it up under the covers takes it away. Occasionally I get up and take 100mg pill of potassium. That takes it away.

  8. I get them at least once a week and sometimes to the point of not being able to stand on the leg. Drinking water, stepping down, rubbing the affected muscle does not help. I have found a pill that relieves the cramp quickly called qualiquin. Its a quinine sulfate. Its a prescription drug and I would be in trouble without it.

  9. Reba Abrassart Worth January 11, 2019 at 8:09 pm · Reply

    Potassium works well for me….foods high in potassium are white beans, milk, bananas, beet greens, salmon, avocados, potatoes, prunes, raisins, etc. Also, mustard and dill pickle juice work in a pinch because apple cider vinegar is also high in potassium. I also tried the homeopathic Hylands, which works well but is expensive. Apple Cider Vinegar also comes in pill form which is very convenient and more affordable. The trick is preventing cramps by being proactive…sometimes I eat a piece of lunch meat slathered with brown mustard before sleeping, just in case.

  10. Kathie Eichelberger January 11, 2019 at 9:00 pm · Reply

    Julie Young, you probably need to be switched to a different statin drug to avoid the breakdown of muscle. Also, ask your doctor if taking CoQ10 might help prevent cramping. When I get a cramp, I flex my toes backward, toward my shin. Be sure not to point your toes! I hope your painful problem will go away for good!

  11. I used to get these a lot when I was younger, and many many years ago there were quinine pills available that absolutely worked. They’re no longer available, and some neurologists disagree with the ban. Apparently other countries do not restrict this use.

  12. My last husband, George, used to spray and massage apple cider vinegar into his calves before bed. I just use a full sized pillow under my knees when laying down to watch tv, then between my knees to sleep. When I am rolling over, I just move both legs at the same time. And never sleep without a top blanket or sheet over my legs!!
    Good luck, Carol

  13. arlene leinweber January 24, 2019 at 12:13 pm · Reply

    We use pickle juice. When the cramp hits run to the frig. and drink about a tbls. of pickle juice and by the time you get back in bed it’s gone

About the Author

Kelsey Andeway
Kelsey Andeway

Kelsey Andeway, health e-news contributor, is a public affairs intern at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove. She is a senior at Loyola University Chicago earning a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Dance. In her free time, Kelsey enjoys dancing, baking, and taking long walks with her Chocolate Lab.