How it works: getting a ‘charley horse’

Madeline Bombardi

(Graphic by: Kate Knapp)
(Graphic by Kate Knapp.)

You are sitting in class, trying to pay attention to Professor Longwinded discussing the economic effects of climate change but you are distracted by a charley horse in your right leg.

If you are not familiar with the term, charley horse is a colloquialism for a muscle spasm or cramp, which originated in late-1800s baseball slang. A charley horse typically feels like the muscle is sore or is involuntarily tightening and relaxing very quickly.


(Photo by: Jamie Rankin)
(Photo by Jamie Rankin.)

The spasm happens over the course of a few seconds to a few minutes. However, in some cases, the muscle can feel achy or sore for a few days.

What exactly is making that muscle spasm in the first place? What is causing that muscle to feel sore?

Spasms can occur for a variety of different reasons, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. They state that a muscle spasm can be caused by overuse, dehydration, low levels of minerals or an irritated nerve.

When the body is dehydrated or does not have minerals to supply to muscles, the muscles that are lacking nutrients will become irritated and contract and relax at a very fast speed, similar to a twitch, according to Medicine Net.

The onset of a sore muscle occurs from inflammation of the spasm. In some cases, the spasm can cause muscle fibers to tear — this also creates a “sore” feeling until fiber cells heal the affected areas.

Preston Blackburn, an undergraduate student majoring in chemical and biological engineering, said that when he gets muscle spasms or sore muscles, he monitors his sodium intake more closely. Sodium is one of several minerals the body needs to regulate cellular balance.

Hayley Thompson, an aspiring teacher and journalism graduate student, said, “Prevention is my best remedy.”

“I have found the only thing I can do when I get a muscle spasm is to drink water and wait it out,” Thompson said. 

Straight from a Ram’s mouth, muscle spasms are remedied with food and water.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Madeline Bombardi can be reached at or on Twitter @madelinebombard.