bars of soap

The following hypothesis was contributed by Derek H. Page and Hugh Smailes:

Several years ago, Ann Landers raised a provocative question in her column: does soap at the foot of the bed cure night-time leg cramps? The consensus in the medical community is no: there is no conceivable mechanism by which it could, so any relief derived from this procedure must be due to the placebo effect. In other words, it’s all in the mind.

But if it is indeed a placebo effect, it’s a remarkably strong one. Many people who have suffered for months, if not years, from painful, nocturnal cramps in their legs and feet have found immediate and long-lasting relief just by slipping a thin, innocent bar of soap beneath the sheets. Some even report relief although they were unaware that a bar of soap had been snuck into bed.

Likewise, others whose cramps have mysteriously returned have been nonplussed until they later discover that their bars of soap have fallen from the bed. From the point of view of those who, like us, are trying to solve this mystery, it is fortunate that several websites (including this one) have maintained reports of this unusual treatment and its results.

We decided that although these data were anecdotal, and therefore suspect, we would treat them as if they were scientifically valid, and use them to try to develop an explanation for soap’s seemingly helpful effects. But as soon as we started reading the literature, we realized what an enormous task we had undertaken. The anecdotal literature is vast, and frustratingly contradictory.

Nevertheless, we decided to continue, recognizing that any explanation we produced would remain an untested hypothesis. It would require testing by others before it could be elevated to the status of a theory. We decided to condense the relevant literature down to a few points on which there is general agreement. Here are the main relevant observations taken from the anecdotal evidence:

  1. It seems to work for many people. Soap in the bed appears to alleviate nocturnal leg cramps.
  2. Relief is immediate and sustained.
  3. Some people report that soap does not work. It appears either to work consistently and well or not at all. There are few cases of partial success.
  4. After a few months, a bar of soap is no longer effective for preventing cramps. It must be replaced. Old soap can be rejuvenated by scoring or shaving it to produce fresh surfaces.
  5. Some subjects have placed the soap between the sheets, and some have placed it under the bottom sheet. Either or both of these methods work.
  6. Some subjects report that direct physical contact between the subject and the soap is desirable, but few claim it is essential.

From these observations, certain conclusions may be drawn. For our purposes, number 4 on the above list is the most relevant. Apparently, the phenomenon can be switched off and on: off when the soap bar ages, and on again by scoring the soap. But why? What is it that’s being switched off and on? We hypothesize that it is an as-yet-unidentified molecule present in the soap. This might sound like a stretch, but in fact, this “switching” mechanism is consistent with what we know about the structure of soap.

Soap is a water-swollen gel. When it’s purchased, its moisture content is generally somewhere between 5 to 15 percent. Soap is very porous, and when it’s swollen with water, it permits small, dispersed molecules to pass through it. But when it has aged, its surface dries out, and its surface is a lot less porous, so small molecules can no longer pass through it.

We think that an unknown molecule that diffuses out of the soap gel is responsible for alleviating cramps. As long as the bar is emitting this molecule, the cramps are suppressed. An old bar of soap ceases to emit the molecule as the surface dries out and its resistance to diffusion rises. That’s when the cramps return. The bar can emit again–and once again eliminate cramps–after new, moister, fresher surfaces are exposed by scraping the bar of soap.

From items number 5 and 6 from our list above, we know that direct contact between soap and skin can be helpful, but it does not seem to be essential. This suggests that our unknown molecule is volatile, capable of diffusing in air: i.e., that it can pass from a bar of soap to your cramping leg in a manner similar to the way a drug is transmitted through a skin patch.

After generating this hypothesis, we took a careful look at the list of ingredients on a package of soap, and we found only one possible source of small molecules of a volatile compound: the fragrance. Nearly all soaps contain fragrances or perfumes. Certainly those mentioned in the anecdotal evidence do. And what perfumes are used in soaps? That’s generally top-secret information, held close to the vest by soap manufacturers. But we do know that most soaps contain esters and oils, such as carrot oil and lavender oil (or their synthetic doppelgangers). These compounds are vasodilators.Like the ester nitroglycerin, which is used to alleviate pain caused by angina, they enlarge blood vessels.

The quantity of perfume transmitted to the skin may be small, but it appears to be enough to dilate blood vessels and prevent cramps. We know, of course, that the small, mobile molecules in the fragrances of soap diffuse through its gel to the surface and evaporate. We know because we can smell them. And when you score an old bar of soap, you can smell it all over again, just as strongly as when you first took it from its paper wrapper.

Before it can be accepted, every new hypothesis has to be tested. We would welcome the findings of anyone who might want to test our hypothesis, and we would be eager to see the results. To the research community, which is convinced that ion imbalance is responsible for the initiation of cramps, we say that this suggestion doesn’t challenge that. There is ample room here for research by the academic and medical communities. Our proposed mechanism will surely be under attack within the week. Yet it fits much of the data so well that we suspect that whatever future research results are obtained the final conclusion in this matter will include much of what is written here.

Finally, it has not escaped our notice that if this explanation is correct, it may have applications beyond the alleviation of leg cramps–specifically, but not only, in the management of pain from other conditions. We hope that having proposed this scientifically viable explanation for the phenomenon of soap alleviating leg cramps will validate the experiences of those that have benefitted from this “treatment,” and open this area of inquiry to further medical and academic research. We do not claim originality for every element of this proposal. But we do claim originality for putting together the pieces of this puzzle.

To those who have been unable to get relief with the soap treatment (i.e., those mentioned in item 3 Above), we suggest you persevere and try a different soap with a stronger scent, potentially scoring it. You might try searching the internet, or this website, to see if there’s a brand others have had good luck with. The fresh, unwrapped bar of soap should then be placed between the sheets, preferably in a location where the soles of your feet can touch it. And please report back to us whether or not it works–we’d be very interested to hear.


Dr. Derek H. Page, (Baie D’Urfe, Quebec, Canada) and Hugh Smailes (Apollo Bay, Victoria, Australia) As a final disclaimer: we are not physicians and have no health expertise, as our critics will doubtless be happy to affirm.

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  1. lou
    washington, dc
    Reply

    I had ankle surgery in 2009 and the recovery was painful. Since then some arthritis has developed in that ankle and leg cramping the same leg. When it its very bad I take hotel soaps and place them on my ankle plus the ligaments across the top of my foot. They are kept in place by wearing a sturdy tube sock to bed. Inevitably I wake up the next morning with less stiffness and pain and more range of motion.

  2. D
    15946
    Reply

    I will be trying the ivory in the bed to relieve leg cramps.

    Two years ago, I had back surgery and my lower back and right hip still are painful – might be arthritis …. I am hoping the soap in the bed will reduce the pain – I take a lot of advil liquid with some success but the advil doesn’t do enough.

    • Ken
      tempe az
      Reply

      From the info listed in the above article it is the fragrance that is the active ingredient, if this is the case then Ivory being % 44/100 pure soap would not be effective as there are no added fragrance.

  3. Marlene
    Maine
    Reply

    I have been having leg and foot cramps almost every night for years. Since I had vascular surgery twice on both legs many years ago I assume the cramps were from poor circulation. My cousin told me about the “soap cure” a year ago while at my home on a visit. I am embarrassed to say I laughed and commented that she couldn’t be serious. Last week out of desperation I tried a bar of ivory soap between the sheets at the foot of my bed and cannot believe that I have had no legs cramps since. I am totally amazed and will continue using.

  4. Sharon
    Chesapeake, VA
    Reply

    I have had cramps for years. Have tried everything, and talked to the dr. about it. Nothing worked for me, then my mom passed away and I found out she was sleeping with bars of soap, and someone said maybe it was for leg cramps. I said she never told me about any leg cramps.

    So I looked up reasons for sleeping with soap and found out. So I thought that if she slept with it maybe there was something to it. It won’t hurt to try. Now I know why she never told me about leg cramps, she didn’t have any. The soap worked when nothing else did. I use the small bars of facial soap and hand soap that I had taken home from hotel stays. They are more comfortable to sleep on. Under the bottom sheet does not work as good for my cramps. I need it to touch my skin.

    I keep soap with me all the time in my purse. If I get a cramp I put the soap on it and it stops. I have about 10 small bars of soap in my bed. When they get old I used then to wash my hands for a day, let it dry and put it back in the bed. When I get up in the morning, soon as I stand up pieces of soap start falling off of me to the floor. Pick them up put them back in the bed. No cramps that night. If I have only a little soap in the bed, I can still have a cramp. But if I reach for the soap in the bed and put it on the cramping area, it stops like a miracle.

    I used to get them while driving, now I wear a pair of socks with broken up pieces of soap from a small bar inside the socks touching my legs, no more cramps while driving. Hope this helps someone else stop the cramps. If it don’t work try putting it on the skin, direct contact. Works for me every time.

  5. Nicola
    South Africa
    Reply

    I have suffered for months with leg cramps and have tried all the usual supplements ie magnesium, quinine etc with no joy. In desperation I decide to try the soap in my bed. To my absolute amazement it worked and is still working. Thank you, thank you, thank you

  6. Barbara
    Pennsylvania
    Reply

    I could not sleep last night because of leg and foot cramps. I don’t get them frequently, but when I do they are severe. I was exhausted and had to be up early for work today so I was desperate. I found this online and tried it. Almost immediately my legs and feet began to relax until the cramps were gone. I could not believe it! I dozed off and got a great night’s sleep. I’m not questioning just thrilled to have found this – thank you!

  7. Martin F
    Ohio
    Reply

    I enjoyed reading this article. My mother began using this idea about 10 yrs ago. It worked for her. She has since passed. I began using it for the past 60 days, it’s working for me. My older sister by ten years has just began using it as well. I wouldn’t have thought to scrape the soap. I only knew about the fragrance & the ingredients. I was figuring the types of oils had something to do with it. I didn’t correlate the ingredients with the molecule and that’s what I found to be interested. Thanks for sharing your research and writing this article.

  8. Maryland W
    Idaho
    Reply

    I hadn’t had a good nights sleep in months because of leg & foot cramps. I tried extra potassium and bananas but that didn’t help. A friend suggested a bar of soap under my sheet. I told him I used to do that but forgot about it when I moved. I found an old bar of soap and it works great. No more cramps.

  9. Angela W.
    St. Louis MO
    Reply

    I recently heard about this concept, soap to stop leg cramps, but was leary of trying it. Two nights ago I had them again for the 5th night in a row. Mine usually strike between 3 and 5am. I woke up at 3am and being afraid of having cramps again I went into the bathroom and opened a new bar of Dove (our favorite smell and soap) and put it under the fitted sheet. I was very skeptical and rather doubtful it would help. However, I did not get the cramps.

    I thought it must be a placebo effect but I did not care. Now after my 3rd night with no cramps I am more than curious so I did a search for leg cramps and soap and found your article first. I completely agree with your thinking…. it is something omitted from the soap. I have also heard that this can help people with arthritic pain and I believe this is true. I wish you luck with your research. I can’t help but wonder what else this molecule might help.

  10. Joan
    College Station TX
    Reply

    When I tried a bar of soap in a little ziploc, especially under my knees, I received great relief from the leg cramps I was experiencing during the night. After using this for a while I asked my chiropractor, who has 18 years experience, about why I was having leg cramps. He knew immediately and activated his activator somewhere on my ankle and I haven’t had leg cramps since. I don’t know if my eating/drinking 2 cups plain yogurt/milk, which provides calcium, daily makes a difference. I wish all of you well.

  11. Natalie
    Reply

    Having been through four pregnancies that all had me waking up to horrible leg cramps, I can tell you that soap in the sheets was the only thing that helped me.

  12. Jo
    arizona
    Reply

    I have suffered with leg cramps for years. I have also tried several remedies, including lotions, Meds, etc. NOTHING helped. Finally, after hearing & reading about the soap method & thinking it was bunk, I tried it 3 weeks ago. To my amazement, I have not had a leg/foot cramp since. If I feel one coming on I simply move my leg/foot to touch the soap & it goes away. Blissful sleep once again. I don’t care if their is no scientific reason for this—it works for me!

  13. Rayanna
    Surrey
    Reply

    I just tried it. It helped me

  14. Dawn
    Baltimore
    Reply

    I have suffered for a good few years from the painful leg cramps, some one suggested I put a bar of soap at the bottom of my bed – unbelievable!!!! no more leg cramps – don’t know why, not interested in why, just so happy it has been working. Can recommend that anyone with cramps, give it a try!!!

    • Tami
      Grandview
      Reply

      Don’t know why but it does work – I use Dove, have used others –I travel with mine

      I suffered for years – thought it sounded dumb, but tried it and have shared with others…
      it’s amazing!

  15. Barbara
    W. Palm beach, FL
    Reply

    At a family function tonight, one of the invitees had a severe cramp in her leg. I told her to put a bar of soap on it. She put a bar of Dove and it IMMEDIATELY subsided. She was absolutely amazed.

  16. Debra
    Michigan City
    Reply

    I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever read, but it was only a few feet from the bedroom to get my soap from the bathroom. Normally, I wouldn’t have soap because I used to use body wash. But my new hobby is making soap. I tried it and it worked, only I put it under my leg. I figured why take chances with just under the covers on my bed. It stopped the pain in my leg. I don’t know if I would call it a cramp, my leg has just been aching for some reason. But it worked!

  17. Megan
    utah
    Reply

    Just tried this last night, worked like a charm. My thoughts are.. does it have to be soap? Can a small rubber ball work? I think i might try a ball. Or a magnet. Instead of putting in under the sheets I put it in a tube sock and wore the sock so it would stay in direct contact with my foot. I was desperate for sleep after being woken up by my leg pain in the middle of the night. I am currently using my husband’s old spice brand of bar soap. Only bar I could find at 1 am.

  18. David Ritchie
    Maryland
    Reply

    The soap seems to work…..I tried Dove soap, others seem to like Ivory. If it works, who cares about the brand. I have found that the bar loses its effectiveness after a week or two….I guess it depends on severity of the cramps, restless legs, etc. I haven’t tried shaving the soap once it loses its effectiveness. All I know is that my legs were restless and driving me and my wife crazy. We put the soap under the sheet and it worked. Go figure. I didn’t want to try medication, so this was a Godsend…..give it a try. :-)

  19. Nina
    Bainbridge Island, WA
    Reply

    I read about the soap cure in a Sunday newspaper. As I’ve had numbness and/or tingling in one foot for several years which has been increasing, I thought I’d try it. It works. It’s only been a week but I haven’t experienced the numbness or tingling.

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