What Causes Charley Horse (Calf Muscle Cramps at Night)?

Updated on July 1, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Scientist and author, Beth enjoys living life in the slow lane. She takes time to enjoy the little things in life.

Charley Horse or leg muscle cramp causes agonising acute pain.
Charley Horse or leg muscle cramp causes agonising acute pain. | Source

What are Leg Muscle Cramps?

A muscle cramp occurs suddenly and without warning. It is an involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. At night, the muscles commonly affected are those in your legs (calves) and feet.

The cramp muscle spasm can be very painful and will waken you from deep sleep. The affected muscle feels hard and lumpy and you will be unable to move that part of your body without experiencing acute pain.

Calf or lower leg cramp is sometimes called a Charley Horse. The spasm or muscle contraction is thought to be the result of a lack of essential minerals or electrolytes in your body.

Have you suffered from nocturnal (night) cramps?

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Consult Your Doctor

This article is for general information only. For health advice you should consult a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.

Health Tip - How to Stop a Calf Cramp Quickly

Are Mineral Deficiencies the Cause of Muscle Cramp?

This article gives general information about Charley Horse calf cramps. A possible cause of these muscle cramps is that your body is deficient in electrolytes. These are essential minerals present in your blood, urine and body fluids.

Sodium, calcium, potassium, chlorine, phosphate and magnesium are all electrolytes. The right level of electrolytes helps maintain your blood chemistry, muscle action and other vital processes. A medical professional can carry out diagnostic blood and urine test to check your mineral health.

Eat the Right Food and Avoid a Charley Horse

  • Potassium: bananas, sweet potatoes, yogurt, white beans, and broccoli.
  • Salt (Sodium); normal seasoning of food should provide enough in your diet.
  • Calcium; yogurt, sardines, turnip greens and dark leafy greens, cheese, and milk.
  • Magnesium; beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, bananas and dark, leafy greens.

Does drinking milk help prevent cramps?

Milk is a good source of calcium, protein, iodine, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins B2 and B12. Most health professionals recommend it as part of a healthy diet. Both the calcium and potassium in milk will help to prevent Charley Horse muscle spasms.

Foods that can help avoid muscle cramps include bananas, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, milk and yogurt.
Foods that can help avoid muscle cramps include bananas, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, milk and yogurt. | Source

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

Muscle cramps cause acute discomfort. For the majority of people the effects are short-lived and do not require medical intervention. However there are some circumstances where you should seek the opinion of a physician as the muscle cramps may indicate some other more serious medical condition.

You should consult your doctor if any of the following applies.

  • Your cramps are causing you severe and prolonged discomfort.
  • They are accompanied by your leg swelling, redness or other skin changes.
  • You experience muscle weakness in the same areas as the cramp is occurring.
  • The cramps happen frequently and don’t lessen with changes in your diet or other lifestyle changes.
  • The muscle cramps don’t seem to be connected to any obvious cause like vigorous exercise.

Causes of Night-Time Calf Muscle Cramps

What Causes Muscle Cramps?

Doctors don't yet know all of the reasons why muscles cramp and spasm. The cause of many of these painful events remains a mystery. Most people are aware that overusing a muscle can cause aches and strain (and pain). For this reason, doing strenuous sport after a long period of inactivity is not recommended.

If you have become unfit and are now attempting to regain your previous fitness levels, proceed with caution. Exercise times should be increased gradually to allow muscles to build their strength and flexibility. Warming up your muscles before an exercise session will also reduce the likelihood of your suffering muscle cramps.

Sign of an Underlying Medical Condition

For a few people, nocturnal muscle cramp is an early warning of an undiagnosed more serious health issue. Although most cramping episodes are harmless, some may be related to an underlying medical condition.

  1. Narrowing of the arteries: Night time leg cramps may be caused by an inadequate blood supply when you are lying down. Your resting heart rate may not be enough to push sufficient blood supply to your legs if you have narrowed arteries and so cramping results.
  2. Lumbar Stenosis or nerve compression: This kind of cramp intensifies the longer you are on your feet, so night-time cramps are unlikely to be associated with this condition.
  3. Insufficient potassium, calcium and magnesium in your diet: This can be the result of a poor diet or it can be a side effect of medication you are taking. Potassium, calcium and magnesium are essential components of a healthy balanced diet. A lack of these minerals has been linked to night muscle cramps. Diuretics (tablets prescribed for high blood pressure) are known to affect the level of these minerals in your body as they make you urinate more often and so flush out these minerals.

Remedies for the Excruciating Pain of Charley Horse Leg Cramps

How to Prevent Muscle Cramps

  1. Drink enough water through the day especially if you are doing energetic exercise or are in a hot climate. Adequate hydration will make you feel better and more alert.
  2. Eat a diet that contains plenty of the essential minerals needed for overall health and well-being. A healthy diet will include foods that are rich in potassium. calcium, and magnesium.
  • Foods that have high potassium levels include bananas, potatoes, avocado, white beans and oranges.
  • Foods with a high calcium content include dairy foods (milk, cheese and butter), kale, sardines and broccoli.
  • Magnesium rich foods include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds and yogurt.

For a short term fix for Charley Horse cramps I use magnesium oil on the affected muscle. It provides temporary relief and allows me to get a good night's sleep.

People at Higher Risk

Many things can trigger a muscle cramp. Muscle cramps can also occur as a side effect of some drugs. Some groups of people are more likely than others to suffer from leg and other cramps.

Age affects many health conditions and muscle spasms are no different; the older you are, the more likely you are to experience leg cramp at night.

For younger age groups, dehydration after taking part in sport is a common factor. Fatigue and a low water intake on a hot day increase an athlete’s chance of suffering from night cramp. Low levels of water can lead to a drop in sodium levels (lost as salt in sweat) and this can cause leg cramps.

For women, the risk factor is pregnancy and muscle cramps are common during the nine months expecting a baby.

Finally, underlying and possibly undiagnosed medical ailments can increase the chance of night-time muscle cramps. If you have diabetes, neurological conditions (such as motor neurone disease), or liver disease, you may be at a higher risk of these painful acute muscle contractions.

Further Information About Causes And Treatment of Charley Horse

The following websites give more details of the symptoms, causes and recommended treatment for calf and leg muscle cramps.

UK National Health Service (NHS)

US Mayo Clinic

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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