We have all had cramps one time in our life. Calves, hamstrings, and feet are pretty common to have cramping. Cramps become more common as we get older. In a Harvard study, half of the participants that were 60 reported having leg cramps, a third say they are awakened by cramps at night, and 15% report weekly episodes. These are very painful and can stop you right in your tracks.
So what causes a muscle to cramp?
According to Dr. Bruce Bean, Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, leg cramps are muscle spasms caused by “mini-seizures” of motor neurons which control muscle contractions. They most common when musculoskeletal issues happen such as arch issues with the feet, metabolic disorders which effect the body’s chemical interactions or neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease.
With that said, it can still happen to anyone, even if we are healthy. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalances can all cause cramping. Scientists have discovered that motor neurons work harder during cramping so finding a way to calm these synapses down is key.
I had a patient come in with leg pain and numbness. After one session, we got the numbness to disappear and leg pain to decrease but she started having cramping when standing. I asked her what she did when cramps occur. Normally, cramping can be taken care of with electrolytes (Magnesium, sodium, calcium, potassium) but in this case she said I took mustard? I never heard of this so I had to do some research. I know a lot as a doctor but I am constantly learning from my patients as well. Here is what I found out about muscle cramping:
How can we prevent cramps?
- Chiropractic and body work help to keep the nerves and muscles healthy and communicating efficiently.
- Make sure you are rolling out tight muscles and stretching.
- Vitamin B complex can help your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism leading to better nutrition to the muscles and nerves.
Now here are some therapies that people use and swear by but are not “scientific”
- Sleeping with a bar of soap near the muscle cramps. I would wrap it up so it doesn’t scrap around the bed all night but it is cheap and harmless. No side effects here.
- Mustard or pickle juice: Swallowing a teaspoon of mustard when you are experiencing cramps or an ounce of pickle juice can quickly alleviate cramps. If cramping is problematic for you, taking a teaspoon of either per night will prevent chronic cramping. Keep in mind though, if you have GERD or are watching your salt levels, you may want to check to make sure it is okay with your doctors treatment plan. This method, because these tastes are so strong, scientists think the foods might stimulate ion channels in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach to send signals to the central nervous system that inactivate overexcited neurons. Pretty cool huh?
- HotShot: This 1.7-ounce dose of cinnamon, ginger, lime juice, sweeteners, and capsaicin (the active compound in chili peppers). This was developed by Dr. Bean and Dr. Rod MacKinnon, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry at Rockefeller University, as a remedy for cramping during rigorous exercise.
Hot shots have the same effect as the mustard/pickle remedy but the effects last longer. works along the same principle as mustard and pickle juice, but has longer-lasting effects. You can purchase this remedy as a sports drink. It is about $7.00 on amazon.
Dr. Amie Gregory is a full body wellness and sports chiropractor with over 10 years experience with helping athletes or anyone else reach their health and wellness goals.