Do you know Charley Horse?
Have you found yourself leaping out of bed in the middle of the night with an agonised yell before trying your hardest to push your foot from a tip-toe position to flat on the floor but the tremendous muscle spasm in your calf is making this rather tricky?
If the answer is “Yes”, then you’re familiar with Charley Horse.
A Charley Horse or “cramp” is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle. It can be excruciatingly painful but usually lasts only a few seconds. You may also feel a hard lump of contracted muscle tissue under the skin.
The most common muscle to cramp is the gastrocnemius in the calf, but cramp also occurs commonly in the feet and toes and less often in the thigh. If the cramp is intense it can leave a tender, bruised feeling for several hours afterwards.
Generally speaking cramps are normal and nothing to worry about, but if they are so frequent they begin to affect your sleep, or they last several minutes at a time, or they don’t improve with the preventative measures I’ll mention later, then you should speak to your GP, as they can be a sign of an underlying health condition.
Most cramps that occur randomly and without a specific medical cause are known as idiopathic cramps. Some theories as to why they happen are:
- Over-working the calf muscles during exercise.
- Not stretching sufficiently after exercise.
- A restriction in the blood supply to the affected muscle, perhaps by an awkward sleeping position.
- Abnormal nerve activity during sleep.
- Ageing – idiopathic cramps are more common people over 50.
Secondary cramps are those caused by particular health conditions or other identifiable causes. Most commonly these might be:
- Dehydration, which can also lead to a low level of salts in the body (calcium, magnesium and potassium).
More serious health conditions that can cause cramps are:
- Cardiovascular diseases.
- Kidney diseases and treatments.
- Neurological diseases.
- Musculoskeletal problems, including arthritis.
- Metabolic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, liver disease, thyroid problems.
Finally, certain medication for conditions such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, Parkinson’s disease and asthma may also increase the likelihood of experiencing cramp. If you think your medication is contributing to your cramps, speak to your GP.
If Charley Horse has already kicked in, stretching is the first thing to do and usually gives instant relief. Massaging the effected muscle can help prevent the cramp recurring.
Try the following to avoid cramping at night:
- Staying hydrated – probably the best preventative measure.
- Gentle stretching of the calf muscle before bed.
- Wearing flat(ter) shoes – if you wear high heels throughout the day, the calf muscles are put into a shortened position, making them more likely to cramp.
- Gentle exercise may help those who are sedentary throughout the day.
Say goodbye to Charley Horse.