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Dead Leg (Charley Horse)

What is a dead leg?

A dead leg occurs when a hard impact causes the thigh muscle to be crushed against the femur (thigh bone). This results in a contusion or bruising on the thigh bone.

The injury sometimes goes by the name of ‘quadriceps contusion’ or is known colloquially as ‘a Charley horse’. Injuries are graded from one to three and can result in little more than numbness all the way to a debilitating injury. Ultimately, this leads the leg to be unable to support body weight.

A dead leg is often regarded as a minor injury. However, correct diagnosis is necessary, with appropriate treatment to be applied immediately. Commonly with an injury associated with sports, if an athlete attempts to play on, or undertakes exercise too soon without a correct diagnosis then delayed healing can be caused and, in the worst scenarios, permanent damage.

Contusions in a dead leg can be intermuscular or intramuscular, with treatment depending on the level of injury and the type of contusion.


Whatever the level of injury, the PRICE principles of treatment are best applied. These are:

  • Protection
  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Treatment should be applied as soon as possible after the injury is incurred.

Ice and compression can be applied immediately, with ice re applied for ten minutes every two hours for up to three days. This will help to reduce internal bleeding, swelling and pain. The leg should be elevated to allow tissue fluids to drain away from the area. A compression bandage with offer support to the injury and further reduce swelling.

Misdiagnosis can be dangerous, and so assessment should be carried out by a competent professional. A complete rupture of an intramuscular injury can occur if the leg is used for exercise or sport too quickly, and this can lead to a permanent disability.

Myositis Ossificans can result if heat is applied inappropriately. This is characterised by bone formations within the injured muscle and can be a very serious condition which requires expert medical examination and attention.

A dead leg can also be treated by a sports doctor or similar with the application of ultra sound which speeds up recovery. A rehabilitation plan for a more serious case is also a good idea, to ensure that pressure is not applied to the damage before it has had a chance to adequately heal. As little pressure should be put on the injury as possible prior to proper assessment. Furthermore, the use of crutches may be necessary.

How long does a dead leg take to heal?

charley horseThe speed of recovery depends on the extent of the injury. For a grade one injury, recovery will be quite rapid with stretching possible soon after diagnosis and recovery likely within one to two weeks.

A grade two injury can take two to four weeks to recover, sometimes longer. Pain lingers, and it will be difficult for the patient to walk properly. Twinges are likely, and straightening the leg will be hard.

When the injury is at the most serious, Grade 3 level, then the patient will suffer severe pain and have significant and immediate swelling. It is likely that a recovery of time between three and twelve weeks will be necessary.