Charley horses can put 
real cramp in your style

Once in a while my readers contact me. It happened once just last year ... but recently I received an email from a gentleman who had read my column. It seems he was visiting Grand Junction and woke early that Saturday morning with a Charley horse. Not able to sleep, and having nothing better to do, he read one of my columns. Unfortunately, by the time he finished the column he had a headache and wanted to discuss the situation with me. Normally, I love to hear from readers when I can find one.

So what is a Charley horse? I have a friend in Germany who is an amazing classical mandolinist. Is a classical mandolinist an oxymoron? They actually do exist in Europe. As far as I know she has never read my column, but she does like to ride horses and named her horse “Charlie.” Get it? Charlie horse? If you are interested in classical mandolin you can check her out at )

But back to Charley horses. Of course, they are not actually horses at all, but muscle cramps (well, except for Gertrude’s horse, Charlie).

No one seems to know why they are called Charley horses. Some people think they are named after “Old Hoss” Charlie Radbourn, a baseball pitcher back in the 1880s who had a lot of cramps. Really? They are also known in some English-speaking countries as “dead leg,” “granddaddy” or “chopper.” Charley horses sometimes have other names, which I can’t go into here.

Generally, a Charley horse is a painful muscle cramp in the upper leg or calf. They most often occur after strenuous exercise, which is probably why I have never thought to write about them before. There seem to be a multitude of causes, ranging from hormonal imbalances, to low levels of potassium or calcium, to side effects of medication, to serious diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or to less serious “diseases” like pregnancy.

Cause is a very tricky concept. For example, I forgot to put the trash out last week. Clearly the cause of my forgetting was distraction from the election the night before. (My wife doesn’t think so, though, since I forgot the week before, too. Our garage is beginning to smell a little like Gertrude’s horse Charlie.)

Muscles have these little ratchet systems inside the cell that slide together, or apart, like the teeth on a bicycle sprocket and chain. Instead of going in a circle, they just go back and forth. If they slide together, the muscle gets short. If the ratchet slides apart, the muscle relaxes, or gets longer.

The thing that triggers the ratchet to slide together is calcium ion. So while there may be many things that cause a Charley horse, they all boil down to excess calcium in the muscle cell. If calcium is kicked out of the cell, the ratchet thing slides apart and the muscles relax.

The mechanism for getting calcium ion into and out of the cell requires energy. Materials for producing energy in the cell, namely sugar and oxygen, are delivered to the cell by the blood stream. So sometimes when exercising a lot, you may not deliver oxygen to all the muscle cells equally and simultaneously. Then, if a group of muscle cells are short on energy, they may not be able to keep the calcium out of the cell and the cells spontaneously contract. 

Don’t worry, though. Just like when you catch your pant leg in your bicycle chain, you can force the ratchet system in your muscle apart by physically stretching the affected muscle the opposite way or physically massaging it. This does make one wonder what they call a muscle cramp in horses.

Anyway, I hope this information is helpful to anyone who might be reading my column just as you get a Charley horse. The headache is not my fault. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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