Calf Muscles and Charlie Horse Cramps

The muscular system can be broken down into three types of muscles: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. Skeletal muscles are the only voluntary muscle tissue in the human body and control every action that a person consciously performs.

As the muscular system impacts so many of the functions necessary to sustain life, any muscle disorder can cause health problems, ranging from minor to severe. Not only do muscular disorders affect mobility, but can result in many other functional abnormalities, such as the inability to breath, swallow or speak.

Causes of muscle disorders include injury or overuse, such as sprains or strains, cramps or tendinitis, a genetic disorder, such as muscular dystrophy, cancers, inflammation, such as myositis, diseases of nerves that affect muscles, infections, and certain medicines.

Calf muscle – The calf muscle, on the back of the lower leg, is actually made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle, forming the bulge visible beneath the skin. The gastrocnemius has two parts that create its diamond shape. The soleus is a smaller, flat muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius muscle. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles taper and merge at the base of the calf muscle.

The connective tissue at the bottom of the calf muscle merges with the Achilles tendon that inserts into the heel bone (calcaneus). During walking, running, or jumping, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to allow forward movement.

Stretching the calf muscle past its normal length results in tearing of some calf muscle fibers. Calf muscle strains can vary from mild to severe. A calf muscle strain is commonly called a pulled calf muscle, therefore “pulling” the muscle refers to stretching the calf muscle beyond its limit.

Sometimes the calf muscles suddenly become hard, tight, and extremely painful. That is a muscle cramp. A muscle cramp (Charley Horse) is a sudden, brief, involuntary, painful contraction. ‘Charley Horse’ is a popular term for painful spasms or cramps in the leg muscles, typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to about a day.

These muscle cramps can have many possible causes directly resulting from high or low pH or substrate concentrations in the blood, including hormonal imbalances, low levels of magnesium, potassium or calcium, dehydration, muscle fatigue, poor blood circulation in the legs, overexertion of the calf muscles while exercising, insufficient stretching before exercise, exercising in the heat, side effects of medication, or, more seriously, diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and neuropathy.

In most cases, self-care measures are sufficient for dealing with muscle cramps, which typically go away within minutes. When muscle cramps occur, there are several things you can do to help ease them, such as massaging, stretching, icing the muscle, warming the muscle. To help reduce the risk of cramps in the future, you need to stay hydrated, stretch properly before exercise, eat more foods high in vitamins and magnesium and calcium.