How to prevent a charley horse

How to prevent a charley horse

Many of us have been a victim of the ever-throbbing charley horse. In the midst of a sound sleep, you suddenly are awakened by an agonizing pain in your leg muscles. Sometimes, the pain can be so unbearable, it leaves you kicking off your sheets, screaming for help or in tears.

A charley horse can seem like the pain will never end. If the pain affects you, know you are not alone; 1 in 3 adults experience night muscle cramps.

“Prevention of muscle cramps can be frustrating for patients and vexing for their health care providers, as there is no standard of treatment,” says Dr. Brian Oostman, a family medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group in Aurora, Ill.

A study from the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research looked at 80 adults who experienced extremely painful muscle cramps about once a week in their calves or lower legs. These cramps can be described as spur-of-the-moment muscle “contractions” that have a fire-like sensation at rates up to 150 per second. Often, the cramps caused great sleep disruption and discomfort.

Through conducting a survey among participants, researchers gained a deeper understanding of the type of pain people were experiencing during muscle cramps. The survey found 89% of the participants were already asleep when cramps ignited, and the pain occurred during a wide variety of times throughout the night. Experiencing soreness around the calf muscles was a common side effect the next day. And some people experienced day cramps when sitting or climbing stairs.

The researchers discovered cramps can form from a number of factors: a scary dream, poor blood flow to legs, exercising too little or even over-exertion of the leg muscles.

The most frequent culprit of these muscle cramps seems to be your sleeping position. The researchers explain each person’s sleep patterns are unique, and when twisting your body in a particular way, you can be more inclined to cramping. Additionally, unconsciously performing movements with your feet play a role. For example, pointing your toes while asleep is a common charley horse trigger.

Taking preventive measures are key to help reduce your chance of becoming a victim of muscle cramps, but it’s important to keep in mind these strategies may not guarantee complete cure from muscle cramps.

“To prevent muscle cramps, I advise people to stay well hydrated, eat a balanced diet rich in calcium, potassium and magnesium, stretch each day – especially before exercise and avoid plantar flexion (pointing the toes) when sleeping,” says Dr. Oostman.

If you get a cramp or charley horse, Dr. Oostman recommends trying the following suggestions:

  1. If the cramp occurs in the leg, stand on the affected limb.
  2. Heat can help relax the muscle, especially an Epsom Salt bath.
  3. Ice can help dull the pain.
  4. If there is residual pain after the cramp resolves, NSAIDs may be helpful, but you should check with your doctor before taking.

Do you have trouble sleeping? Learn more about sleep apnea by taking a free online quiz. 

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  1. I keep a bar of soap by my bed and put that by my leg. Pain goes away almost instantly!

  2. I rub rubbing alcohol and I have almost instant relief.

  3. What kind of soap. Ivory is real soap and zest ect is not really soap. They call it something else.

  4. Hyland’s leg cramp pills work well for me. Cramps gone in a matter of minutes.

  5. Flexing your foot up so your toes point towards your knees gets rid of them instantly.

  6. Katherine Merkel January 21, 2020 at 12:56 am · Reply

    A friend told me to put a pinch of Himalayan sea salt under my tongue, it works on the worst of cramps. Does anyone get a cramp from the ankle to the inner thigh with very intense pain and inability to even stand?

    • @katherine Merkel – YES, yes I do…. and not much helps when you get it too. I am willing to try the soap thing, cause this ankle to inner thigh cramp is PAINFUL. And it’s an interior muscle spasm where you can’t even get to it to massage it. So any suggestions that work for others are welcome.

  7. Marty Rothenberg June 18, 2020 at 12:58 pm · Reply

    I find that leg stretching just before going to bed has generally eliminated the overnights (Except when I skip doing it 🙁 )

  8. I always get them in my feet the night after exertion in heels (dancing). But if I do a good job of massaging my feet before bed, it helps prevent it.

  9. My mother-in-law swears by putting a bar of soap in your bed with you when you sleep. Any soap will do the trick.

  10. To stop the pain from a charlie horse, pinch your bottom lips together or your top lips. The pain will go away in minutes.

    • Agree with Ted. I was not aware pinching the bottom lip together also works, but I do know pinching the top lip together does. Folks will laugh at the idea but I heard this on a morning radio show many years ago and it actually does work. Also, stretching the muscle helps.

  11. Muscle cramping and charley horses are often a result of a magnesium deficiency. So many people don’t know this. Once I began a high quality isotonic magnesium supplement every night before bed, my charley horses disappeared and I slept much better at night. Please spread the word. I wish someone would have told me this sooner!!! 🙂

  12. Drinking a glass of tonic water (regular or diet) has stopped the Charley horse I used to get. It’s the quinine that helps.

  13. Mary Ruth’s Night time Minerals does the trick for me. Haven’t had muscle cramps at night in years now.

  14. One of the providers I work with stated drink 1 oz or real cherry juice every night to prevent those leg cramps. I have been doing this for one month, not one leg cramp, which is great considering I was getting them 1-2 times/week.

  15. Adrienne Szulczynski June 2, 2021 at 1:16 pm · Reply

    Pickle Juice – about 3-8 oz. They even sell pickle popsicles and pickle juice by the gallon for runners. I prefer non-frozen pickle popsicles. It’s just enough and works fast.

  16. Brenda M Van Ness June 2, 2021 at 4:44 pm · Reply

    I have constant cramps in the calves of both legs & get occasional Charley Horses in my calves – even on the soles of my feet, but those are rare. I have to sleep with my left leg bent as I need knee replacement & is about the only way it hurts less. It too is a constantly painful. Needless to day walking is slow and painful.

  17. Megan is correct. I flex my foot so that my toes are pointing towards my head. Cramp / Charley Horse goes away in seconds and I’m back to sleep.

  18. Agree with Meagan. Flex your foot up and towards you to the max.

  19. I have heard of most of these solutions for relief of leg cramps but I have to ask what do you do with the soap?

    • I just have it in the bottom of my bed between the fitted and top sheet. I have not had charlie horses since i started using it years ago except on vacation when i forgot to put soap in my bed!!!

  20. My husband gets them a at least once a nite. He gets up and eats a spoonful of yellow mustard. He says it goes away after that.

  21. pickle juice at the bedside, a couple swallows does wonders

    • i’m going to take a wild guess and say that most of you probably have varicose veins. Get those fixed and your problems in most cases will be over.

  22. One of my providers suggested pickle juice for my constant charley horses and calf cramps. The pickle juice really does work!

  23. Sandy Eich-Koester July 7, 2022 at 12:57 pm · Reply

    While all these suggestions work, I preferred not having them in the first place. I have done four things that have prevented cramps, especially in my thighs.
    1. Delete all forms of carbonated drinks from my diet. Soft drinks, sparkling water, all of them.
    2. Take 2 vitamin e supplements daily (suggested by a nurse practitioner).
    3. Avoid sitting long periods of time on hard chairs where the edge of the chair is pressed behind my knees.
    4. Keep well hydrated.

    Hope this benefits someone. I haven’t experienced cramps since 2019. Before that cramps came throughout both the day and night.

  24. My Gastroenterologist recommended drinking about 4-6 ounces of tonic water (quinine). Gone in about 60 seconds – every time. I leave it by my bed as it happens only about twice a month.

  25. Martin Nicholson July 7, 2022 at 1:14 pm · Reply

    Wear socks to bed. This does the trick for me. Now I only get night leg cramps in the summer when I don’t like wearing the socks. In the summer I take a multi vitamin and drink a large glass of water before bed. This helps but I still get the occasional cramp. I never get them when I wear socks.

  26. This is true: Andrea Reply
    Muscle cramping and charley horses are often a result of a magnesium deficiency. So many people don’t know this. Once I began a high quality isotonic magnesium supplement every night before bed, my charley horses disappeared and I slept much better at night. Please spread the word. I wish someone would have told me this sooner!!! 🙂

  27. After reading this article, it occurs to me that they don’t know any more than I do. However, I do know that I have a med that almost immediately stops the cramp. Its called Quinine Sulfate prescription. This is much nicer than mustard, pickle juice, soap bars, etc. My cramps do not normally go away with changing of foot positions, heat, cold or anything else.

    • Karen Marbach July 7, 2022 at 6:10 pm · Reply

      Quinine sulfate is the same as drinking tonic water with quinine in it. Many have thanked me for this solution. You don’t have to drink it every day. One glass holds me for a month or so. Stepping on a cold floor helps also

  28. Please- everyone.!
    Do not try these methods unless you check with your primary care provider first. Some of them could actually be dangerous.
    -For example, pickle juice has enormous amounts of sodium, which could make heart failure or high blood pressure worse, among other things.
    -Taking 2 Vitamin E supplement tablets can cause significant thinning of the blood that could be dangerous if you are already on a blood thinner, including aspirin.
    -Using a bar of soap- won’t hurt, but there was some actual research on it, and it didn’t help. Except- if it keeps more space between the mattress and the top sheet/blanket, it might help with preventing the toe pointing and that might be how it helps. In that case, anything that keeps the bedcovers from pushing your toes down might help.
    -Quinine actually does help some people really well. Just don’t take it without checking w your primary care doc: it could have some cardiac side effects.

  29. Lavender soap between the sheets

  30. Iodized Salt works best for me. I keep it next to the bed. I get intense inner thigh cramps and just a lick of the salt stops it rather quickly. Followed by water if corse.

  31. I read somewhere that the leg cramps were from a lack of oxygen, so I take several deep breaths. That nearly always seems to stop them. If not, I get up and apply “Theraworks”. I seem to get leg cramps at night after eating red meat, or wearing high heels.

  32. My primary physician had no remedy for me. I got the soap idea from Google. Any kind of soap. I put it between the mattress and fitted sheet. It works as long as it is close to my legs. I have lab work every 6 months, never told I had any deficiencies.

  33. I too will get them from my feet to the top of my thigh. I try to stand up and will drink a Gatorade and eat a banana. If it happens a few times in a week I will occasionally take magnesium once. Like someone above said you have to be careful with some of these home remedies. Too much magnesium can cause diarrhea, if you have cardiac issues you need to watch the sodium with pickles, if you are on blood thinners you need to avoid vitamin e and other meds. The bar of soap I believe they say because if you are using the correct soap it contains magnesium. The best practice is like mentioned above, talk with your PCP.

  34. Adrienne Nelson July 8, 2022 at 12:57 pm · Reply

    I take chelated magnesium (magnesium with amino acid) I also have pure magnesium gel to use immediately.

  35. Adrienne Nelson July 8, 2022 at 1:04 pm · Reply

    I take chelated magnesium formulations
    they end in “ate” like glycinate. Also I use magnesium gel for immediate relief. I have had no leg cramps since I started this.

  36. Deborah Marquez July 10, 2022 at 8:53 am · Reply

    I get the cramps on the top of and inner thighs and I’ve tried everything to subside the cramps I fine that drinking pickle juice from sour pickles help subside the cramps some.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.