If you've ever had a charley horse, it's not in your head (or your dreams). We did some digging and had an expert break down the possible causes of such a strange and painful sensation.
What causes a charley horse
Muscle cramps come in all shapes and sizes, and a charley horse is a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction of one or more of your calf muscles, according to the Mayo Clinic. Here's the thing: They're typically harmless, aside from the momentary pain and torment they cause. However mild they can be considered, the acute pain can be intense and can make it temporarily impossible to move whatever muscle is cramping, the Mayo Clinic says.
Muscle cramps, including your pesky charley horse, are often caused by overuse, improper sitting or lying position, or muscle strain, the Mayo Clinic says; however, they can also be caused by dehydration. This is because your muscles require water and electrolytes (i.e., essential minerals like magnesium, sodium, calcium, potassium and phosphate, that have an electric charge) to function properly. These minerals help balance fluids in your body, they transport nutrients and waste, cause muscle contractions, and balance your pH. When dehydrated, your electrolyte levels can become imbalanced, and your muscles may contract. This is why drinking water can help reduce and prevent cramps, says Andrea Paul, MD, physician and staff medical advisor at Illuminate Labs.
Other causes of cramps can include narrowed blood vessels or pinched nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic. Readjusting your sleeping or sitting position might help.
Here’s how to find calf cramp relief
When a charley horse strikes, it can feel like someone is twisting your muscle for fun, but it's important not to panic. Panicking from the pain can make the cramp hurt worse, says Dr. Paul. When you writhe in pain, you contract your muscles. What you need here, during an acute charley horse, is to relax and allow the muscle to unclench. Tensing up an already contracting muscle will at best make the cramp last longer and at worst heighten the pain, she explains. Instead, taking deep breaths and trying to relax your body can help your muscles unclench and give you peace.
Once your charley horse pain lessons, the National Library of Medicine recommends applying a warm or cold compress or drinking a glass of water to relieve any residual soreness and prevent the cramp from coming back. However, if the cramp does not go away and happens very frequently— seeking medical treatment is recommended.
Most of the time, these cramps are just random acts of muscle contraction that hurt really bad. Hopefully, with some deep breathing and some extra water, they’ll vanish as fast as they arrived, so you can drift back to sleep peacefully.
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