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