Since You Asked
The other day I was stretching after I woke from a nap and I got a terrible cramp in my calf. I think that's what we used to call a charley horse. Can you explain how, or why, they happen — and while you're at it, what's the origin of that term?
— Bob L., Medford
You're feeling a muscle in spasm, Bob, a kind of involuntary contraction that, as you know, can be surprisingly painful.
Those spasms can be associated with a number of causes, including (but not limited to) overuse, injury, dehydration, or low levels of certain minerals, such as potassium or calcium. You can make sure you have enough potassium by eating bananas or drinking orange juice.
Kinesiologists (those folks who study how the human body works) would tell you that spasms in the calf can be a problem for swimmers, too. Upper leg spasms are more likely to trouble runners or jumpers.
When you come up lame with a charley horse, the best thing to do is massage the cramped muscle and try to stretch it as quickly as possible. If the pain persists, you could apply a little heat at first, then ice.
As for why we call this particular thing a charley horse, most word sleuths associate the term with baseball slang, and they say it's been around since the 1880s to describe a muscle spasm that causes an abrupt change in gait. "Charley" was a common name for horses in those days. The theory is that a player went gimpy one day and he reminded somebody of an old limpy horse, but the real origins are as lost as a ball in high weeds.
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