Why You Get Charley Horses—and How To Stop Them
They wrench you awake in the middle of the night, or send you clutching for your calf during your morning run. Like your girlfriend’s bad moods, muscle spasms seem to flare up without warning. The bad news: “Despite all our advanced tests, we aren’t sure exactly what causes them,” says Rob Danoff, DO, a physician and pain management specialist at Philadelphia’s Aria Health System.
It’s not a total mystery, though. Danoff says there’s evidence that spasms—which are involuntary muscle contractions that most often show up in your feet, hands, legs, or back—arise from mineral or nutrient deficiencies, dehydration, overworked muscles, or circulatory problems. (Or a combination of all these factors.) Here’s your game plan to assess your muscle spasm risk factors, prevent them from happening, and calm an ornery muscle cramp when it strikes.
Keep a Diet and Exercise LogBefore bed, write down what you ate and any physical activity you had during the day, Danoff suggests. Keep the log for a month or two and compare the frequency of your spasms with your diet and exercise habits. Searching for patterns—say, you tend to get Charley horses after long weekend runs or when you eat (or don’t eat) certain foods—can help you identify your spasm triggers, he says.
Watch Your Workouts“I tend to see muscle cramps a lot among guys who are weekend warriors,” Danoff says. If you’re the type who sits around all week at the office and then hits the gym or trail hard on the weekend, your muscles may not be ready to handle a rigorous workload.
If exercise seems to trigger spasms, Danoff says stretching the affected muscle before and after your workout can help. Common spasm points are often your calf muscles, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Quick static stretches like the ones found in our New Rules of Stretching (pictured below) can give those muscles the love they need.
Calves: Position your body in front of a wall as shown and lean forward to stretch.
Quadriceps: Position your body as shown and push your hips forward while keeping your torso upright.
Hamstrings: Place your foot on a sturdy box or bench as shown, then lean forward from the hips until you feel a stretch.
Bolster Your DietShortages of minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium could all factor into your risk for spasms. How? All three are essential for proper nerve function and muscle contraction, Danoff says. This is especially true during the hot and humid summer months—when you’re more likely to have fluid imbalances by sweating out a lot of nutrients and electrolytes. Proper hydration means your muscles receive a solid flow of oxygen to function, but when that’s zapped, they can spasm and stiffen. (Follow these 3 rules so you Don’t Get Sidelined With Heat Cramps.)
For magnesium, Danoff recommends dark leafy greens like spinach, as well as nuts, fish, beans, and whole grains. Dark greens and fish like salmon will also boost your calcium levels, while milk and yogurt are also good calcium sources, Danoff adds. When it comes to potassium, reach for apricots, bananas, white beans, and baked potatoes with the skin still on, he says.
How to Deal With a Charley HorsePoor or low blood circulation may be at the root of many muscle spasms, Danoff says. (That might explain why they often strike in the middle of the night.) But just walking around can help alleviate the cramp by getting blood moving in your lower extremities, he says. If it’s really nasty, you might have to pinpoint the cramp and work it out yourself. Try these super-quick stretches when you’re writhing from a sudden spasm.
At the bottom of your foot: Lift your toes toward your shin.
Near your calf: Bend your ankle, bringing your foot toward your shin.
In your hamstring: Sitting or standing, fully extend your lower leg.
When to WorryMost men get muscle cramps from time to time, Danoff assures. But if you’re experiencing Charley horses more than once a week—and especially if the spasms last for more than a minute—you should talk to your doctor, he advises. Nerve damage, underlying blood or circulatory diseases like diabetes, and other serious health issues could be causing or contributing to your spasm problem.