Why Am I Getting Charley Horses All the Time?


Q: What does it mean if I am getting charley horses all the time in my legs and feet… especially at night when I’m in bed? What can I do to help not get them as much, or as badly? – Samantha

A: There’s a lot of debate about what causes “charley horses,” or muscle cramps. According to an ABC News report, the medical world can’t pinpoint exactly why they strike out of the blue, why some people get them more than others, and why these sudden spasms usually occur in the legs and feet.

Though muscle cramping isn’t believed to be a serious condition, it is painful and inconvenient, especially when it wakes you up mid-slumber!

Most experts have chalked muscle cramping up to these factors:

  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
  • Muscle overexertion
  • Cramp-inducing blood pressure and diabetes medications
  • Sitting in one position too long

There’s no instant cure for charley horses, but stretching and massaging the muscle usually helps to relieve the pain. When massaging, it’s best to rub in the direction of the muscle fibers. So, if you get a charley horse in your calf, rub from your knee down to your heel, not sideways across the calf. Moving around and soaking in a warm bath are other ways to increase circulation and help relax the contracted muscle. You may want to warm the muscle up this way before attempting to stretch it out.

Can Muscle Cramps Be Prevented?

Based on the suspected charley horse causes, there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of muscle cramping.

STAY HYDRATED—You should be drinking at least 8 cups of water a day and staying hydrated through your workouts. Having a glass of water before bed may help, too. Here are some good hydration rules.

TAKE A MULTIVITAMIN—Incorporating supplements into your diet will help with certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which are a suspected factor in muscle cramping. Some experts have pointed specifically to a lack of potassium, and bananas can take care of that.

EXERCISE SMART—It’s important to be patient and sensible with your body. If you over-exercise, skip your warm-ups, or overload your muscles, you could be at greater risk for muscle cramping. More on muscle care below!

Show Your Muscles Some Love

Working out at a level of fitness that is too advanced, or progressing in your regimen too quickly, could be one cause of your muscle contractions. In addition to overexertion in exercise, not warming up properly and not cooling down could be contributors. If your muscles are cramping, it may be a sign that you’re overloading your muscles.

People often neglect to think about their muscle health but it’s really important. We tend to get bored/impatient/short on time and skimp on our warm-up and cool down times. This leads to decreased muscle quality, pain, and a high risk of injury. So make sure you’re warming up your muscles before a workout, especially if you’ll be doing strength training, sports, or rigorous exercise. Light cardio or active stretching should do the trick.

Post-workout stretching will help release your muscles so they don’t stay tight. Try holding each stretch for at least a minute: breathe deeply, relax, and after 30 seconds, go deeper into the stretch for another 30 seconds. Think of proper muscle care as an integral part of your workout and allow plenty of time for it. The more time you spend, the more you’ll increase flexibility and range of motion, improving your overall fitness results.

Foam Rolling is a wonderful way to release muscles before and after a workout (it’s kind of like a mini massage). The foam roller is especially good for your glutes, quads and calves—common charley horse spots. Watch a demonstration of how to use a foam roller for each muscle area here.

Most gyms have foam rollers that you can use, and you can also purchase an inexpensive, high-quality Myofascial Release Roller from IdealShape. Spend 5-10 minutes massaging your muscles with a foam roller and you will be able to recover more quickly from your workouts as well as prevent soreness and injuries.

Has anyone else found a way to deal with charley horses, or identified what causes them for you?

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Chelsea Bush

About Chelsea Bush

Chelsea Bush is a writer on the Ask Fitness Coach team and has covered fitness, health and wellness topics for several magazines. Her favorite ways to get fit: cycling, resistance training and keeping up with her boxer, Greta. Follow her fitness tweets at twitter.com/chelseawriting