You’re sound asleep, finally, and suddenly the most intense and gripping pain attacks your leg. The muscle becomes hard and contracted and you either scream in pain or stifle the desire to do so. There’s nowhere to go to get away from the vice-grip agony of it until if finally relaxes. The common name in North America for these cramps is “charley horse.” Although they go by a wide variety of names worldwide, the pain is pretty similar, no matter what they’re called.
Another Pain in the Leg: Muscle Spasms
It seems that people with fibromyalgia suffer with charley horse cramps more than those who aren’t afflicted with the condition. Perhaps the reason is due to the fact that fibro sufferers are already predisposed to muscle pain and contractions. Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS), an associated disorder that is common to those with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) may be a contributor. The pain of muscle spasms is very intense and those with FMS often experience them in the neck region as well as the legs.
There is no specific cause for charley horse cramps – they arrive unbidden and it seems most people have experienced them during their lifetime. However, the person with FMS is in a compromised position because of the already susceptible condition of their muscles. These cramps tend to appear most in the areas where muscles cross one another. These muscles include the calf, where the knee and ankle muscles cross; the hamstring (back of the thigh) where the muscles of the knee and hip cross; and the quadriceps, also crossing the knee and hip.
Risk Factors for Charley Horse Cramping
The causes of leg cramps are not known; however, there are conditions that create a higher risk for them to occur.
- Muscle fatigue, common for FMS patients
- Heavy exercising
- Dehydration, another possibility for FMS people
- High weight, although not necessarily obesity
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Medications, again FMS sufferers are a prime candidate in this department. Blood pressure meds are among those implicated
People who are older, over the age of 65, and adolescents tend to deal more with leg cramps. Athletes who don’t stay hydrated and everyday folks who are low on certain minerals can also be bothered with them.
Leg Cramps Are a Mystery
As common as leg cramps are, they are still something of a mystery to the medical profession. They don’t require medical intervention and doing research on leg cramps is not top of mind for most researchers. Since leg cramps, especially those that occur in the night, are relatively short-lived and not life threatening, there isn’t much energy that goes into explaining why they happen.
Dr. Doris K. Cope, vice chairman of pain medicine in the department of anesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine said that, “It has to do with the excitatory and inhibitory pathways of the nervous system.” She added that, during nighttime cramps, the muscle cells’ “relax” button is disabled, meaning that no matter how much we’d like to unclench our rock-hard calf, we can’t. The result is extreme pain. The action is involuntary, which means you have no control over it at all. We know that fibromyalgia is a central nervous system disorder, which could be a plausible explanation for the recurring and frequent leg cramps many FMS sufferers experience.
A low level of important minerals in the body is also implicated in the equation. Calcium, potassium and magnesium are all minerals that help muscles operate smoothly and remain relaxed enough not to cramp. Have your doctor check your levels and up your intake of these minerals if necessary.
How to Deal with Charley Horse Cramps
Since there is no cure for them, how does one deal with a charley horse and the accompanying pain? There are several suggestions we will share with you here:
- As mentioned above, increased intake of calcium, potassium and magnesium is helpful. However, don’t take potassium supplementation without checking with the doctor. Too much potassium can cause heart problems. Instead, eating a banana or an orange daily will address your potassium needs adequately.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is a primary cause of leg cramps.
- Massage the cramped muscle.
- Stretch your muscles by doing stretching exercises daily – yoga is a great way to do this.
- Warm baths or warm compresses to the leg muscles are a pleasant way to relax the muscles.
If leg cramps just don’t go away, check in with the doctor. Electrolyte imbalances can be problematic and the doctor may want to do some blood work. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed if there is no escaping the cramping.
Fibromyalgia syndrome presents with a wide array of symptoms that accompany muscle pain. Learn more about the syndrome, how it affects people and how you can deal with the symptoms by reading further on this site.