How to prevent a Charley Horse

How to prevent a Charley Horse

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 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 among participants, researchers gained a deeper understanding of the type of pain people were experiencing during muscle cramps. The survey found 89% 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.

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 preventive 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 balanced 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 keep a bar of soap by my bed and put that by my leg. Pain goes away almost instantly!

  2. I rub rubbing alcohol and I have almost instant relief.

  3. What kind of soap. Ivory is real soap and zest ect is not really soap. They call it something else.

  4. Hyland’s leg cramp pills work well for me. Cramps gone in a matter of minutes.

  5. Flexing your foot up so your toes point towards your knees gets rid of them instantly.

  6. Katherine Merkel January 21, 2020 at 12:56 am · Reply

    A friend told me to put a pinch of Himalayan sea salt under my tongue, it works on the worst of cramps. Does anyone get a cramp from the ankle to the inner thigh with very intense pain and inability to even stand?

    • @katherine Merkel – YES, yes I do…. and not much helps when you get it too. I am willing to try the soap thing, cause this ankle to inner thigh cramp is PAINFUL. And it’s an interior muscle spasm where you can’t even get to it to massage it. So any suggestions that work for others are welcome.

  7. Marty Rothenberg June 18, 2020 at 12:58 pm · Reply

    I find that leg stretching just before going to bed has generally eliminated the overnights (Except when I skip doing it 🙁 )

  8. I always get them in my feet the night after exertion in heels (dancing). But if I do a good job of massaging my feet before bed, it helps prevent it.

  9. My mother-in-law swears by putting a bar of soap in your bed with you when you sleep. Any soap will do the trick.

  10. To stop the pain from a charlie horse, pinch your bottom lips together or your top lips. The pain will go away in minutes.

  11. Muscle cramping and charley horses are often a result of a magnesium deficiency. So many people don’t know this. Once I began a high quality isotonic magnesium supplement every night before bed, my charley horses disappeared and I slept much better at night. Please spread the word. I wish someone would have told me this sooner!!! 🙂

  12. Drinking a glass of tonic water (regular or diet) has stopped the Charley horse I used to get. It’s the quinine that helps.

  13. Mary Ruth’s Night time Minerals does the trick for me. Haven’t had muscle cramps at night in years now.

  14. One of the providers I work with stated drink 1 oz or real cherry juice every night to prevent those leg cramps. I have been doing this for one month, not one leg cramp, which is great considering I was getting them 1-2 times/week.

  15. Adrienne Szulczynski June 2, 2021 at 1:16 pm · Reply

    Pickle Juice – about 3-8 oz. They even sell pickle popsicles and pickle juice by the gallon for runners. I prefer non-frozen pickle popsicles. It’s just enough and works fast.

  16. Brenda M Van Ness June 2, 2021 at 4:44 pm · Reply

    I have constant cramps in the calves of both legs & get occasional Charley Horses in my calves – even on the soles of my feet, but those are rare. I have to sleep with my left leg bent as I need knee replacement & is about the only way it hurts less. It too is a constantly painful. Needless to day walking is slow and painful.

  17. Megan is correct. I flex my foot so that my toes are pointing towards my head. Cramp / Charley Horse goes away in seconds and I’m back to sleep.

  18. Agree with Meagan. Flex your foot up and towards you to the max.

About the Author

health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.