What Causes Those Painful Charley Horses, Anyways?
Once or twice a month I wake up in the middle of the night from shooting pain in my right calf that’s so intense, I legitimately can see the goosebumps that have formed on my arms.
Since I’m usually just relieved when the pain from a Charley Horse has finally subsided, I’ve never really put much thought into what causes these muscle contractions or why more people seem to prone to experiencing them than others, until Charley Horses randomly came up in a few recent conversations. My deskmate here at InStyle gets Charley Horses almost as often as I do, while one of my friends swears that she’s only recently experienced her first Charley Horse in her late 20s.
So why do some of us regularly experience agonizing Charley Horses, and some of us don’t? I turned to Michel Ryan, Tier X Coach and Tier X Manager at Equinox Tribeca to find out.
First, Ryan gave me a quick history lesson these muscle contractions got their seemingly random name. “‘Charley Horse, as legend would describe it, is a centuries-old tale of a lazy horse who consistently pulled up lame while executing chores,” says Ryan. “In later years, it would be related to baseball stories. Most commonly interpreted, getting a ‘Charley horse’ is when a sudden cramp or strain abruptly occurs during an expression of performance or some other physical task that may or may not be familiar.”
There isn’t a single reason why we get Charley Horses. The cramps or strains we abruptly experience can be caused by various factors like diet, dehydration, your body’s state of readiness for movement, and its physical capacity, to name a few. This is why it seems that more people are prone to Charley Horses than others. “Some may be more prone than others if nutrition is deficient or hydration levels are compromised, resulting in an imbalance in essential minerals and electrolytes,” explains Ryan. “This disruption may lead to a compromise in muscle fiber sequencing, placing a disproportionate responsibility on synergistic muscles.” The imbalance leads to a strain on said synergist becoming over-engaged, which leads to cramping.
Externally, making movements while exercising without the proper balance can also lead to Charley Horses because of the strain and excess force you’re placing on that part of the body. “Lacking this essential component may even cause substantial injury,” says Ryan. Instead, he suggests challenging your core with stability movements like planks, chops, lifts, and medicine ball slams.
If you’ve ever experienced a Charley Horse, you’re familiar with how the agony seems to last hours, when in reality, it only lasts a minute or so. Ryan says that there’s a few things you can do eliminate the pain as quick as possible. Although it might seem impossible, it’s important to try to remain calm. Ryan says that deep belly breathing can help. “This subtle behavior will lower overall tone throughout the body,” explains Ryan. “Breath directly relates to the response. Panicked, short breaths trigger an increase in the sympathetic or fight or flight response, which may exacerbate the Charley horse.” Once the pain calms down, he recommends gentle movements to help free the area from tension, followed by increasing the range of motion of the affected area.
So, is there any way to really prevent Charley Horses? In short, yes but the following practices won’t guarantee a Charley Horse-free life. Ryan says that properly stretching prior to workouts so that your body is ready for movement, a diet packed with sufficient lean proteins, omega 3 fats and fibrous carbohydrates, and drinking enough water everyday (about half of your weight in ounces), can all help minimize how often you get Charley Horses.