Charley horses, or muscle cramps, are very common. In one recent survey, about a third of all those asked said they had suffered at least one muscle cramp in the last year and one in 50 said they had cramps at least once a week. Muscle cramps have many causes, including:
- Muscle fatigue.
- Imbalances of fluids, hormones, or body salts (the “electrolytes” calcium, magnesium, potassium).
- A poor blood supply.
- Nerve abnormalities.
Because the right treatment depends on the cause, your doctor will take a medical history, give you a physical exam, and possibly run some laboratory tests. Although muscle cramps can be very uncomfortable, they are rarely a sign of a dangerous disease. Most cramps are not a danger to your health: They are “benign.”
If there is no serious underlying cause for your leg cramps, the treatment is simple: daily stretching of the affected muscles. Quinine once was a popular remedy for muscle cramps, but the Food and Drug Administration recently banned quinine supplements from drugstores because there have been reports of serious and sometimes fatal side effects. Quinine is still available by prescription, but talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this medication. Quinine has been found to be effective in treating muscle cramps in a variety of well-designed clinical trials. Its use is controversial however, because of rare, but potentially dangerous side effects. Likely for this reason, it is not approved for this use by the FDA.