Differentiating Standard Leg Pain from a Charley Horse: A Guide

Blog Post
By South Valley Vascular
April 15, 2024

Leg pain from a Charley horse can be difficult to differentiate from signs of other serious conditions. In this guide, we’ll examine how to tell the difference between a Charley Horse and other leg pains.

What Causes Charley Horses?

So, what causes Charley horses? Like other muscle spasms, Charley horses occur when a muscle is overused or injured.

Two of the most common causes of muscle spasms are exercising when dehydrated or having deficiencies in certain minerals. Most commonly, a spasm is caused by a deficiency in potassium or calcium in the muscle.

Other spasms occur because the nerve connecting the muscle is irritated. An example of this kind of spasm is a herniated disc. The nerve connecting to the back muscle and through the disc gets irritated, ultimately causing pain.

Muscle spasms can occur at almost any time. They can happen in the middle of an activity, like kicking during swimming or running, or at night in bed. Upper leg spasms are also common in running and jumping activities. Likewise, neck muscle spasms can be a clear sign of stress.

What is a Charley Horse?

What people commonly call a Charley horse is an example of a muscle spasm or cramp. These kinds of spasms can occur in any muscle but most frequently happen in the leg. This means a Charley horse is a frequent example of a muscle cramp, but not all cramps are Charley horses.

With any spasming muscle, it will contract without conscious control and won’t immediately relax when prompted.

Diagnosing and Treating a Charley Horse in Calf

A Charley horse in the calf is one of the most common spots to get one. The calf muscle will get very tight; it might even almost feel knotted or bulging. The pain from a Charley horse can vary in intensity, up to and including severe pain. That pain is what makes it feel like it could be a sign of a more serious condition.

How will your healthcare provider know? The diagnosis will start by examining the muscle itself. Unfortunately, there are no imaging studies or blood tests to diagnose the condition. In cases of nerve irritation, an MRI might be used to locate the source of the problem.

Charley Horse Treatment

As soon as you think you might have a Charley horse, stop any activity and try stretching and massaging the affected muscle.

At first, applying heat may produce the best result, reducing the cramping. However, ice may provide more thorough and lasting relief after the pain has subsided. If it’s still sore, try a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (ibuprofen or naproxen) if needed. If the pain is still severe, your provider may recommend prescription antispasm medicines.

After treatment, your provider should investigate the cause of the spasm to help prevent it from happening again. If an irritated nerve is involved, physical therapy or surgery may be necessary.

In either event, hydration is key to reducing your risk of recurring Charley horses and cramps. Drink plenty of water or your favorite sports drink to help! 

When to See a Medical Professional

Muscle spasms improve with time and rest. For most people, they usually clear right up. If you exercise and stay adequately hydrated, many spasms can be prevented from occurring regularly. 

However, in some cases, you may need to see a doctor or other vascular specialist. See a medical professional if you:

  • Feel muscle spasms with severe pain.
  • The muscle spasms are accompanied by weakness or similar difficulty using them.
  • The spasm doesn’t stop and spreads to other body parts, such as the back.

Even if not severe, your provider can help change your exercise program to reduce the future risk of spasms.

Leg Pain Solutions with South Valley Vascular

Now that you know what causes Charley horses and the best treatment methods, you may feel all set. Charley horses aren’t the only source of leg pain; they can be a sign of serious condition. 

Make sure your Charley horse isn’t a sign of PAD or DVT with an appointment with South Valley Vascular. Our experts will treat the immediate cramping and determine whether it’s a sign of a deeper vascular issue. South Valley Vascular has proudly served Central Valley’s vascular needs since 2005. 

Contact South Valley Vascular today for an appointment or more information.