The Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of quinine to treat leg cramps. Although this drug has been available for centuries, the FDA has determined that it is far too dangerous to use for anything but malaria.

The trouble is that some people are extremely sensitive to quinine’s toxic effects. This drug can cause headache, rash, ringing in the ears, nausea, dizziness and blurred vision.
The most serious reactions are rare but can be life threatening. Blood disorders can lead to hemorrhaging. Dozens of hospitalizations and two deaths are linked to quinine.

Clearly, quinine can be dangerous for certain people, but the FDA has not banned quinine from tonic water. Quinine gives this beverage its distinctive flavor. Either the FDA doesn’t consider tonic water a danger to public health or the agency worries about arousing the ire of millions of gin and tonic drinkers.

Because of this loophole, many people have discovered that drinking tonic water can help prevent muscle cramps. One reader related her experience: “I suffered with nightly leg cramps until one magic day on the Greek island Santorini. I had gone on tour as a guest singer of the New York Choral Society. One free afternoon, a group of us went to a black sand beach where I swam. The only other member of the group who also swam was a New York trauma surgeon. I developed a cramp and was trying to walk it out when he told me about Schweppes tonic, which contains a very small amount of quinine.

“I couldn’t find any tonic on Santorini or in Athens, but as soon as I returned home I started drinking a large glass (diet, with cranberry) every night. It has worked for me for several years, but I definitely know if I skip a dose!

“I asked a pharmacist friend to search the literature to see if anything else contains a small amount of quinine. She couldn’t find anything and told me the dangers of using high-dose quinine. I have checked with my doctors and have heard nothing against my practice of drinking Schweppes.”

Tonic contains 83 mg. of quinine in a liter. An eight-ounce glass or tonic would only have about 20 mg of quinine, considerably less than the dose that used to be prescribed for leg cramps (200 to 300 mg).

Despite the low dose, however, many readers maintain that it works: “My doctor recommended tonic water for nocturnal leg cramps. It works every time very quickly. In less than five minutes I get relief and can go back to sleep. I suffer NO pains if I drink half a glass before I go to bed.”

Some people find even the small amount of quinine in tonic water can pose problems. These folks may experience ringing in the ears, rash, itching or blurred vision and should steer clear of tonic water altogether.

For such people, home remedies may be the best way to get relief from nocturnal leg cramps. Our Guide to Leg Pain has instructions on stretching as well as a range of remedies.

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  1. jannell
    sacrameno, ca
    Reply

    A few mouth fulls of Tonic water with Quinine or pickle juice are the only 2 cures my daughter and I have found for leg cramps and restless (jumpy) leg syndrome. Just beware of the salt in the pickle juice if salt is a problem for you.

  2. BLT
    Reply

    Tonic water is the ONLY way I have found to releave the killer cramps that I get on infrequent occasions. It works almost instantly. I do not drink the tonic water to prevent cramps because they occur randomly.

  3. ETS
    Reply

    I’ve been suffering with horrible, excruciating leg cramps. Nothing much seems to work and if they get too bad I end up in a tub of hot water. On a recent visit to the doctor she has suggested the tonic water w/quinine. I had a cramp last night and I drank 12oz of tonic water. I can’t really say if it helped because the cramp did not go away right away; however, I’m going to give it a try for 6 nights (6pack) and see if it helps to prevent. At this point I’m willing to try just about anything because I suffer so bad. I don’t wish this on anyone, but to know I’m not suffering alone helps to ease my mind.
    People’s Pharmacy response: The quinine in tonic water can act as a preventive. For quick relief, try a sip of pickle juice or swallowing a teaspoon of yellow mustard:
    http://www.peoplespharmacy.com/2014/07/28/leg-cramp-remedies-are-as-close-as-the-fridge/

    • Diane
      Florida
      Reply

      Several friends have this problem, one says that drinking pickle juice caused her blood pressure to elevate. I am looking into the Schweppes tonic water/w quinine, half a cup before bed. But will need to monitor how it affects me. A man friend has them really bad, he works on ladders and on his feet all day, so I am trying to get info for all of us.

  4. cwf
    Reply

    I am a social person and love a good gin and tonic with a slice of lime…I believe the tonic water in my drink has been the cause of my reoccurring hive condition. Doctor’s prescribed prednisone for the hives. Prednisone is the only med that will stop hive attacks and make them go away..
    cwf

  5. Nvh
    Reply

    Been using it for years. Just a sip or two and cramp subsides immediately. Tonic water is a Staple in our home. My husband takes it when needed also!

  6. Viv D
    Reply

    For years I’ve been drinking lime juice daily which has prevented leg/foot cramps up to now, but lately I’ve had a few cramps again. After reading these comments I will try tonic water plus lime – hopefully the double whammy will work!

  7. Elaine
    Reply

    I too use Tonic water for occasional leg cramps. But, I discovered it is good for stomach cramps related to the flu or other viruses. Two years ago there was an intestinal virus making it’s way through the family and in-laws. Some had cramps so bad the doctor phoned in pain meds for them.
    I remembered the Tonic water and asked my husband if he would bring me a glass. Well, he did and on ice. I sipped the water and had only two very mild stomach cramps. That was it. I think this flu season I will try an ice tray with frozen Tonic water in it for ice chips for a sick stomach and see how that works.
    I would like to see how this works for menstrual cramps as well. Fortunately my daughter doesn’t have cramps and I’m passed that stage in life.

  8. Dane C.
    Reply

    Twas good info scared my wife from drinking, I have drank it so long why stop?

  9. SJB
    Reply

    I was told about quinine in tonic water by a friend last week after suffering very bad cramp in my calf, which left my calf permanently painful. The pain disappeared almost immediately after drinking a couple of glasses of tonic water.

  10. Eileen P.
    Reply

    I began having leg cramps at night after having peripheral neuropathy. I mentioned it to a friend and he gave me an eight ounce bottle of tonic water telling me it will relieve the cramps quickly. That night I had a bad cramp and took two sips, within a minute the cramp stopped. Toward morning had another cramp, took another sip of tonic water, like magic, cramp gone almost instantly.
    Now I hear it will interfere with my thyroid medicine and cause other problems. Does anyone know how many people drink gin and tonic as their favorite drink? I know several and nothing bad has come of it. I will continue to take a sip or two if I have leg cramps and doubt that little will interfere with my thyroid medicine.
    I would think that the FDA would remove quinine from shelves and some other govt agency would ban it from being added to tonic water were it really dangerous. Of course I am saying this hoping I am right since leg cramps are the most painful thing I have ever endured.

  11. YS
    Reply

    No wonder I feel better after drinking tonic water and after a week I’m so refreshed and clean. However, quinine tastes awful, raccoon *beep* really. :/ The first time I drank the tonic water that stated it had quinine I felt like I was drinking the green NyQuil. :P My face surely contorted with disgust. I know use an acai water flavoring to cancel-out that medicine bitter (bitter can’t described how awful this tastes). I know that quinine is good for me because after drinking the 12 oz bottle I don’t get the leg issues I always suffer from (retained fluids, inflammation/swelling, cramps, sleepiness, numb feel). The leg issues that causes for concerns are no more… thank goodness. I feared I would have to go under the knife and out up my legs to relieve the pressure from the inflammations and trapped fluids. Anyways hold my taste buds and nose, down the hatchet it does, one nasty quinine tonic water will definitely keep the surgeons away.

  12. Jason
    Reply

    Hi Joy, I am currently being investigated for unexplained Syncope (Fainting) I am not on any other medication i.e. statins and the only change in my diet in the past 6 months has been drinking Tonic Water on a daily basis. You mentioned you have had experience of fainting, how did you diagnose the cause as being the Quinine? Thanking you in advance

  13. lynnie
    Reply

    I recently have been having leg cramps and my doctor suggested to try tonic water and the very first glass I drank immediately brought relieve to the pain on both my legs. Taking a glass just before bed helps you to have a peaceful sleep also.

  14. S. Adams
    Reply

    What your friends really need are electrolytes. The easiest way is adding celtic salt (which will be grey in color) to the water they drink. And not to become dehydrated.

  15. Paul the Roman
    Reply

    actually my experience with RLS also found relief from a glass of tonic water. Depending on how severe the attack is I can usually damp down the RLS feeling by having a tumbler full of quinine water.
    Tryptophan also used to be effective but as you may know this harmless amino acid is no longer available due to the misguided diligence of the FDA which banned it after a scare caused by a contaminated batch made its way to health food shops.
    I believe that the FDA practice of banning certain natural compounds in spite of their obvious therapeutic benefit is a direct result of influence by corporate pharmaceutical companies, which after all practically run the FDA, in order to eliminate competition in the OTC market. So much for America’s free and open market place, eh?

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