While it may sound like a new member of your animal house, a charley horse is just the lay term for a sharp, intense muscle cramp. The pain often manifests in your foot, thigh or calf, and it often appears while you’re asleep, but can come on at any time, especially during or after exercise. The pain lasts anywhere from a seemingly endless few seconds to as long as several minutes.

Why do I get charley horses while I sleep?

While many people think that this sudden muscle cramp is a result of the position in which you sleep, or a lack of hydration, there’s now a newer school of thought when it comes to the cause of nighttime charley horses.While the sharp leg cramps of a charley horse may strike mid-run, they can also hit you while you sleep

Thanks to more current research, we now know that charley horses occur when our nerves fire again and again, against our will, likely due to your straining or overusing the now-cramping muscles. You may also be more likely to develop a charley horse if you skip the stretches after exercising, spend lots of time on your feet (or on your seat) during the day, or have compromised circulation. Athletes, pregnant women and overweight or older adults are more likely than others to suffer a charley horse cramp.

While all of these factors may increase your likelihood of cramping, there’s a different explanation for why your feet and legs cramp at night—especially if tightly-tucked sheets leave you sleeping with your feet pointed.

Plantar flexion and foot cramps

When you sleep on your back or stomach all night with your feet pointing down, a position know as plantar flexion, your calf muscles can tighten up (take note that, over time, this positioning can also inflame your plantar fascia, leading to chronic heel pain.)

This is how to stop charley horses

While charley horses hurt like heck, they are also fairly easy to stave off. In order to keep those nighttime foot and leg cramps away, you should:

  • Stretch and foam roll tight muscles, especially those in your hamstrings, calves and feet. Making this part of your pre-bedtime routine may be especially effective when it comes to preventing a charley horse.
  • Work movement into your day, so that muscles don’t get ‘stuck’ in any one position, potentially causing them to tighten up.
  • Protect your feet while you sleep by giving them plenty of room to move. Keep a towel or pillow near your feet so that your blankets don’t weight them down into a pointed position, or rest your feet against the buffer so that they never fully extend into that pointed position.

Treating a charley horse

If your preventative measures don’t work, never fear: it’s actually pretty to get rid of charley horses.

  • Flexing your toes towards your body will help stretch out your calf muscle, and likely relieve the cramp at a faster pace (it can also help aleve early symptoms of plantar fasciitis, so keep this move in your repertoire for non-cramping moments, too.)
  • Even once the cramp has passed, you may have a dull ache in your affected foot or leg, so try ice, heat or even self-massage—anything that relaxes the area will help you feel better.

Of course, in most instances, charley horses aren’t dangerous, but frequent cramping could be a sign of a more serious condition like peripheral arterial disease, especially if your cramps appear with activity like walking. So, if foot and leg cramps are keeping you up on a regular basis, it’s worth bringing up the issue and coming in for a visit with your podiatrist.