A charlie horse is a name given to severe muscle cramps in the legs or feet. The cramp often feels as if the muscles of the legs or feet spasm and then lock up in excruciating pain. Charlie horse cramps can occur anytime, but some people are more prone to get them at night. The most common area for a charlie horse is the calf muscle, but cramps can occur anywhere in your legs or feet. There are some changes you can make in your diet and lifestyle that may help prevent night cramps, and there are steps you can take to stop the pain of a charlie horse when it occurs.
Know when to see a doctor about your leg or foot cramping. Some people are more prone to leg cramping, such as women who are pregnant and children having growing pains. Most of the time, charlie horses are not harmful but merely an annoyance that wakes you up at night. In some cases, however, night cramps are an indicator that you have an illness or condition that may need to be treated by a doctor. If you start having charlie horse cramps after you were exposed to lead or another toxin, you should see a doctor. Tell your doctor about your leg cramps if you have diabetes, flat feet, hypothyroidism, peripheral artery disease, alcoholism, Addison's disease, kidney or liver failure, or if you are on blood pressure medication, taking oral contraceptives or have had gastric bypass surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic. Go to the doctor if your night cramps are so excessive you can't get any sleep.
Drink more water to help prevent charlie horse cramps. Dehydration has been implicated in the cause of leg and feet cramps. Most adults need at least 8 large glasses of liquid per day, usually more if you are active or live in a dry climate. This liquid should be mostly made up of water, juice or healthy sports drinks. Caffeinated drinks, carbonated drinks and alcohol tend to dehydrate you, so drink them sparingly.
Exercise regularly, and stretch your legs during and after exercise. People who live sedentary lifestyles are more prone to getting a charlie horse. Exercising your legs gently before you go to bed may also help get the blood flowing down to your feet and prevent legs cramps. Throughout each day, stop and stretch your calves and feet often.
Get plenty of calcium, potassium and magnesium in your diet. Eating bananas will increase your potassium and may help prevent the occurrence of charlie horse cramps. Take a calcium and magnesium supplement and include more dairy products in your diet to increase these nutrients.
Make other minor changes to your lifestyle to avoid charlie horses. Do not sit with your legs crossed at your knees. Avoid wearing high heels for extended periods of time. Wear comfortable, supportive shoes. Loosen your bed sheets down by your feet so your legs and feet don't get stiff.
Massage your child's legs when he gets a charlie horse at night. Children with leg cramping get them because their bones are growing faster than their muscles and their muscles feel strained at night. Assure your child that he is just having growing pains and that it is normal.
While experiencing a cramp, try one of these techniques to stop it. Gently jiggle the affected area. While lying in bed, gently begin to point your toe up toward your shin, trying to stretch the calf. Bring your knee up toward your chest and hug it to you; circle your foot at your ankle. If the charlie horse is not relieved while lying down in your bed, get up and walk around or take a warm bath. If you need to, ask someone nearby for a leg massage.