There's nothing quite like the cocktail of surprise, anger, agony, and dismay that comes with being woken up by the intense pain of a charley horse. These cramps in your legs (usually the calves) mean that your muscles have spontaneously decided to spasm and tense up while you were just hanging out asleep. As mysterious — and shockingly painful — as these middle-of-the-night cramps are, there are (thank god) some ways to prevent them.
Unfortunately, it's not always possible to figure out why these cramps creep up. But, as MedLine explains, taking certain medications (such as diuretics), or exercising while low on calcium, potassium, or magnesium may make them more likely.
The most common culprits, though, are overusing those leg muscles and being dehydrated. And they're most likely to strike after you've been standing or sitting for a long period of time. So spending hours standing at a concert where you barely sipped any water is the perfect recipe for a late-night charley horse.
Leg cramps are also common among people who are pregnant, especially during the second and third trimesters, writes Myra Wick, MD, PhD, at the Mayo Clinic. However, it's not exactly clear why cramps are so common during pregnancy. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it may be due to a combination of weight gain, pressure on nerves, and changes in your blood flow.
You can prevent muscle spasms during the night by stretching out those muscles before climbing into bed. The Cleveland Clinic suggests doing calf stretches against a wall or using a towel to hold your leg out in front of you while seated. You can also make cramps less likely by staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and wearing supportive footwear during the day. And because of the aforementioned potential link between being low on magnesium, calcium, or potassium and cramps, it's worth trying to eat plenty of fruits and leafy green veggies.
Should you experience a charley horse, the best thing you can do is (unfortunately) get out of bed, walk around, and do a few of those same stretches. Otherwise, you're just stuck waiting. Luckily, they only last a few minutes at most, although you could feel some soreness for a couple of days after the cramp.
However, there are some cases in which frequent leg cramps may be symptoms of a more serious issue, such as thyroid disease or diabetes. But don't jump to conclusions: If those conditions are actually responsible for your cramping, you'll also have other more serious symptoms that will signal something's wrong. If you're concerned about your leg cramps, or your cramps are persisting even after regular stretching, it's best to check in with your doctor. You and your legs deserve a pain-free night's sleep.