The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Whoa! Charley Horses and Calf Cramps

Posted by on Thursday, June 7th, 2012

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There’s nothing that quite compares to the pain of a severe leg cramp–other than, of course, a monster seizing your leg and squeezing it in its big monster hands, while another monster stabs it with white hot knives. Worse, they strike out of nowhere. So what can we do about these monsters?

So what is a calf cramp? Cramps in your calf, sometimes known as charley horses, are sudden, involuntary contractions of your calf muscles, more precisely known as the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle. They don’t relax immediately, but stay painfully cramped for a length of time, usually for a few minutes. In most cases they are not actually dangerous. However, occasionally a calf cramp can be so severe that the muscle fibers can tear just from the force of the spasm, causing a calf strain. If you have a calf cramp, but find that pain is lingering even after the muscle has relaxed, you may want to consider consulting with a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900).

Good grief, what on earth causes them? There are a number of possible causes. A muscle that is already injured or overtired, for example from an unexpected or unusually tough workout, can cramp afterwards or during the event. Tight muscles also cramp easily. Dehydration is a common culprit; low levels of potassium are as well.

What do I do if I have one? Other than scream in pain? Yes, the screaming in pain is a very important part of the treatment. So is rolling around on the ground in agony. Once you’ve got that out of the way, you can try several things. One is to stretch–conveniently, you can do this while you’re rolling around on the ground in agony. While you’re lying there, point the affected leg straight up in the air, then grab your toes or the toe of your shoe, and pull downward so your foot is flexed. Hold it for about 15-20 seconds, let your foot relax, then repeat a few more times. You can also do this in a sitting position with your leg straight out in front of you. You can also massage the affected area, or apply heat, either with a heating pad or by taking a warm shower or bath. Some recommend icing the area afterwards to bring down swelling if the spasm was severe enough to cause a strain, but you should only do that if you’re really sure that the muscle is fully relaxed again. If you suspect dehydration is the cause, drink something preferably either a sports drink with some sodium in it or some water with some pretzels or another salty food. Why? as any woman who has ever had a fat day can tell you, sodium helps you retain water.

I hear that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Does that apply here? Yes! Try these tips:

  • Listen to your body. If you’re overtired or in pain from other injuries, take a break or do something else.
  • Stretch. Some people just naturally have tighter muscles than others. If you’re having a lot of problems with cramps and strains, you might be one of these people, in which case you may want to pay extra attention to stretching. Here is one stretch you can do easily and wait, here’s another simple stretch.
  • Sports Massage. People with tight muscles may also want to consider getting a sports massage to help keep their muscles loose.
  • Drink. Make sure you’ve had enough to drink before doing any kind of intense, long workout. On the other hand, don’t overdrink–hyponatremia, or too much fluid, is as bad as dehydration.
  • Make sure you have enough potassium. Bananas are great sources of potassium. They’re cheap, they’re convenient to carry, and they’re not messy. If you’re a heavy exerciser, a banana a day is an easy step towards getting enough potassium.

Hopefully you’ll be able to use these to avoid the dreaded Calf Cramp Monster. If you find that you are experiencing calf cramps regularly, or are having any other kind of sports related foot, ankle, or lower leg issue, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.