Charley Horses Keeping You Up at Night?

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lower legs shown in bed
Charley horses—painful calf cramps and spasms that usually occur overnight—are a painful way to wake up.

Ask my husband how terrifying it used to be to sleep beside me.

At least once a month, I would wake up screaming in pain—and as heavy of a sleeper as he is, he’d still wake up, too, groggy and extremely worried about me. The reason for my sudden agony was always the same: I had a charley horse. (And if you think I’m overreacting, then you’ve probably never had one.)

Charley horses are painful leg cramps or spasms that occur suddenly and without warning. They can have many causes, like dehydration, nutrient deficiency (especially magnesium, potassium, or calcium), physical inactivity, prolonged sitting, with or without bad leg positioning, and muscle fatigue. Charley horses can also be a side-effect of certain medications, and they’re common during pregnancy and in patients with ALS or neuropathy. The cramp might pass in a few minutes or hang on for more than a day—in my case, the charley horses were often so severe that not only did I feel them long after the initial spasm receded, but my calf muscle also stayed visibly clenched for as long as a week.

Pain from charley horses might be alleviated by walking or gentle massage in the opposite direction of the spasm. If there’s a chance potassium deficiency is to blame for your cramp, you can eat a banana. Stretching the affected leg slowly can also help.

I’ve found my own charley horses have all but disappeared since I started practicing yoga regularly. I wouldn’t say that I was entirely inactive before that, but adding regular, stretch-heavy exercise to my routine got me away from my desk and moving just enough to ward off nighttime screaming episodes. (Not to mention that consistent physical activity has been proven to improve sleep quality overall.)

Most of the research behind the relationship between yoga and charley horses has more to do with using yoga to alleviate them, rather than as a prevention technique, so my own experience may be anecdotal. But I didn’t make any other significant changes to my lifestyle at the same time that I started taking more yoga classes, and the cramps almost completely stopped within a few weeks. The correlation might be exactly that—but if you get charley horses like I did, it doesn’t hurt anything to see for yourself if adding yoga or another physical practice makes them decrease or even disappear.

Your calves—and your bedmate—will appreciate it.

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and communications strategist. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey at Camden, and has published under her own byline at publications including DAME Magazine and The Frisky.