charley horse

[ chahr-lee ]
/ ˈtʃɑr li /
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a painful, involuntary cramp of an arm or leg muscle resulting from excessive muscular strain or a blow.
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Origin of charley horse

First recorded in 1885–90; originally baseball slang
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does charley horse mean?

A charley horse is an involuntary muscle spasm or cramp, usually occurring in the larger muscles of the limbs. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a day—and can really hurt.

Charley horse is popularly spelled Charlie horse or charlie horse

Where does charley horse come from?

The ultimate origin of the term charley horse is murky, but it first appears in the context of baseball in the 1880s. Back then, baseball players called various muscle injuries, including cramps, bruising, and other pains and sores, charley horses.

One story says the term comes from a lame horse, named Charley, that pulled equipment at the Chicago White Sox’s in the late 19th century. Poor Charley’s limping stride became so familiar to the baseball players that, whenever one of them sustained a muscular injury in the lower body that made it hard to walk, they called it a charley horse.

Another tale goes that the term originated with Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn, a National League pitcher notably afflicted with leg cramps and muscle pain in the late 1880s. Charley horse combined Radbourn’s first name and altered the second part of his nickname.

While originating as an Americanism, charley horse spread to other varieties of English over the 20th century. It also spread into popular culture. Milton Bradley included a charley horse injury in his 1965 game Operation, in which a person earns big points by removing a tiny plastic horse from the slot. Note: This, of course, is not how to treat an actual charley horse. Doctors say to stretch, massage, or ice the cramping muscle, not to try and pull a little horse out of it. Charlie Horse, punningly, was the name of a character on the 1990s children’s puppet show, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along!

How is charley horse used in real life?

Charley horses often occur late at night while a person is sleeping. This is usually due to either an awkward position of the body or a vitamin deficiency that causes muscles to cramp after being relaxed for a period of time.

Usually, a charley horse will resolve itself with time and treatment. However, if it persists, it may be smart to go to a doctor. Although it is best known as a runner or athlete’s injury, charley horses are also known to very inopportunely sneak up all sorts of people in everyday activities.

More examples of charley horse:

“I stretched my legs out last night while I was sleeping and got a Charlie horse so bad down my whole bottom leg, and I still feel the muscle pull now, hours later. 😂”
—@AquaPoppie, July 2018

“She said heat cramps will present similar to a charlie horse or muscle cramp. She said people with heat cramps need to get out of the sun and drink water.”
—Bob Gross, The Times Herald, June 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use charley horse in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for charley horse

charley horse
/ (ˈtʃɑːlɪ) /

US and Canadian informal muscle stiffness or cramp following strenuous athletic exercise

Word Origin for charley horse

C19: of uncertain origin
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Medical definitions for charley horse

charley horse
[ chärlē hôrs′ ]

Localized pain or stiffness in a muscle following excessive muscular exertion or the contusion of a muscle.
The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Other Idioms and Phrases with charley horse

charley horse

Cramp or stiffness in a muscle, most often in the thigh, as in After working in the garden I frequently get a bad charley horse. First used in the 1880s among baseball players, the term was soon extended to more general use. Its true origin is disputed. 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.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.