By Debra Witt
Originally Posted On September 1, 2013
Most of us have experienced an occasional charley horse, that sudden, intense muscle pain that grips the calf muscle. Many people have, inexplicably, felt this pain in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, there is as yet no clear explanation of why it occurs.
"Leg cramps that happen during sleep are quite common but not fully understood," says Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, assistant professor of interventional spine and sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. A 2012 report in the journal American Family Physician found that nearly 60 percent of adults have experienced what the experts call nocturnal idiopathic leg cramps — and we become more prone to the pain as we age. One in 3 people over the age of 60 report having been awakened by a charley horse at least once in the previous two months; 6 percent of those over 60 say they deal with the problem on a nightly basis.
Possible Causes for Concern
A charley horse can be a sign of several conditions. The cramps can be related to spinal stenosis, a natural wear-and-tear condition that leads to the narrowing of the open spaces within your spine, which in turn puts pressure on the nerves that travel through it. Many people may not be aware they even have this condition until a doctor is able to connect it to certain symptoms, including nighttime leg pain.
How to Handle It
There are myriad ideas for handling nighttime leg cramps. If you search online for "charley horse treatment," you'll see a range of tips, from self-massage to listening to classical music to eating mustard. Many of these treatments have been studied, but the results are far from conclusive.
Fundamentally, Kirschner says, since there's no clear "rhyme or reason" for the cramps, the best thing people can do to prevent them is to generally maintain a good baseline level of fitness and stay well hydrated. The Mayo Clinic advises other steps to prevent flare-ups, like stretching leg muscles before going to sleep and loosening the covers at the foot of your bed.
When cramps do hit and force you out of bed, Kirschner says, his patients have found relief in remedies including: