Dear Lucy: Lately, I’ve occasionally been waking up at night with a “Charley horse” in my legs. What causes this, what should I do when it happens, and, more importantly, how can I prevent it? —Back in the Saddle
Dear Cowboy: Lucy feels your pain! There’s nothing worse than awakening from a sound sleep with one of those agonizing and disorienting muscle cramps! A “Charley horse” usually affects one of the muscles in the calf and often occurs in the middle of the night with no warning. When one of those muscles begins to spasm like that, it locks in a contracted position, causing intense pain.
According to Shawn Ferullo, M.D., chief of MIT Medical’s Sports Medicine and Orthopedics Service, immediately rubbing the spasming muscle may help to relieve some of the initial pain of a Charley horse. “For example, if you have a muscle spasm in your calf, rub the muscle from behind the knee toward the heel,” he advises. But then, he says, it’s best to get out of bed and try to stretch the muscle out. “Stretching is the best way to reduce the length of time the cramp may last,” he explains, “although it may be painful at first.”
According to Ferullo, a Charley horse may have many possible causes. “Sometimes it’s a delayed reaction to a muscle strain during exercise,” he notes, “but frequently it’s caused by dehydration.” Other potential causes might be a potassium deficiency, an electrolyte or mineral imbalance, a side effect of a medication, or some other medical condition.
Making sure you get enough fluids will prevent most Charley horses, Ferullo says. “Drinking a glass of orange juice or tonic water in the evening may also help,” he notes. “Orange juice is high in potassium, and tonic water contains small amounts of quinine, which can also help.” Lucy hopes this helps, but if these muscle spasms continue to be frequent, even after you increase your fluid and potassium intake, you might want to discuss other possible causes — and cures — with your clinician at MIT Medical. —Lucy