In Scandinavia it's called "wooden leg." Australians call it a "corky." Here in the the U.S. it's called a "charley horse," and it's a lingering medical mystery. Trace Dominguez sleuths out what he can in today's DNews report.
Similar to other muscle cramps, the phenomenon of the charley horse occurs when your muscles suddenly and involuntarily contract. They can occur in virtually any muscle, but they are most common in the legs and often happen at night or during sleep. Anyone who's been afflicted can tell you -- they're painful and scary and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
Medical researchers aren't exactly sure what causes a charley horse, but they have some pretty good educated guesses. It's likely that the cramps are triggered by specific type of muscle fatigue, which could result from too much standing, too much sitting, or too much exercise.
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It's also likely that dehydration is a factor. When your fluids are low, your muscles get less oxygen and are prone to spasms. Dehydration also causes electrolyte imbalances, and we're fairly sure that electrolytes have something to do with uncontrolled cramping. That's because electrolytes are the medium through which our brains tell our muscles when and whether to relax or contract.
Runners and other athletes will tell you that potassium and magnesium are critical allies when it comes to preventing cramps. Potassium in particular is good for muscle relaxation. For those that get regular charley horses, some doctors advise a gradual increase of potassium and magnesium in the diet. Bananas are a good source of potassium, as are sweet potatoes, raisins, dried plums, dried beans and cooked spinach. Nothing like a big bowl of hot spinach at the end of a long run, we always say.
Double Secret Bonus Trivia: Why are they called charley horses? Legend holds that it's old 19th-century baseball slang concerning either a lame stadium horse in Chicago or a pitcher named Charley Radbourne, but no one is really sure. We're not likely to trace the origin now. Etymologists tried to figure it out all the way back in 1907, and it was already lost to the mists of time.
WebMD: Leg Cramps
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Medline Plus: Fluid And Electrolyte Balance