Q. What exactly is a "charley horse" and why do I get them in my legs at night?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the term "charley horse" was first used in the 1880s by baseball players to describe a muscle cramp. No one knows the true origin, but the dictionary says: "Among the more likely theories proposed is that it alludes to the name of either a horse or an afflicted ball player who limped like one of the elderly draft horses formerly employed to drag the infield."

Geezers are more likely to get charley horses because of muscle loss that starts in our 40s. And your remaining muscles don't work as efficiently as they used to. Studies show that about 70 percent of adults older than 50 experience nocturnal leg cramps.

A cramp is an involuntary contracted muscle that does not relax. The common locations for muscle cramps are the calves, thighs, feet, hands, arms, and the rib cage. Cramps can be very painful. Muscles can cramp for just seconds, but they can continue for many minutes.

Almost all of us have had muscle cramps, but no one knows for sure why they happen. However, many healthcare professionals attribute cramping to tired muscles and poor stretching. Other suspected causes are dehydration, exerting yourself when it's hot, flat feet, standing on concrete, prolonged sitting, some leg positions while sedentary.

Muscle cramps are usually harmless. However, they can also be symptoms of problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones. Less common causes of muscle cramps include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, hypoglycemia, anemia, thyroid and endocrine disorders.

The use of some medications can cause muscle cramps. For example, some diuretic medications prescribed for high blood pressure can deplete potassium. Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to cramps.

Here are some pointers for treating a cramp yourself: stop whatever you were doing when you got the cramp, massage the muscle and stretch it slowly, apply a cold pack to relax tense muscles.

To prevent cramps, do stretching exercises especially for those muscles that tend to cramp, and drink water regularly. If you are exerting yourself in heat or sweating for more than an hour, you should drink fruit juice or a sports beverage. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor may prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.

If you have nocturnal leg cramping, ride a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime. The following stretching exercise is good, too. You should do it in the morning, before dinner and before going to bed every night:

Stand about 30 inches from a wall. Keep your heels on the floor, lean forward and put your hands on the wall. Then, move your hands slowly up the wall as far as you can reach comfortably. Hold the stretched position for 30 seconds. Release. Repeat twice.

If you experience frequent and severe muscle cramps, see your doctor.

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