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How Does Soap Soothe Cramps?

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Sometimes we come across a home remedy that seems so preposterous it hardly deserves a second thought. That happened to us nearly a decade ago when readers of this column started telling us that they were putting soap under the bed sheet to prevent nighttime leg cramps.

One reader was very cautious about trying this approach: "Under the cover of darkness (so my husband, who is an M.D., wouldn't see), I slipped a bar of soap under the sheet on my side of the bed. For two nights I continued to have mild leg cramps but by the third night they were gone. I have not had them since."

Over the years we have heard from hundreds of people who have been astonished that this simple remedy helped ease a chronic problem for which there was no other treatment. Others were skeptical, suggesting that any benefits were due to the placebo effect.

Because the soap story seems so implausible, many doctors scoff. So do some readers: "You folks are ridiculous, superstitious and ignorant. How can you recommend a bar of soap under the bottom sheet for leg cramps? It's just plain dumb. Please spare us such silliness."

Others started wondering whether there might be a plausible explanation for this phenomenon. A chemist at North Carolina State University analyzed the outgassing of several brands of soap mentioned frequently in our reader testimonials. He discovered a volatile compound used as a fragrance common to the most popular soaps.

An anesthesiologist was intrigued enough by soap testimonials to conduct some experiments using crushed Ivory soap. Dr. Yon Doo Ough and his colleagues placed their homemade skin patches over muscle cramps and found that the pain was relieved (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July, 2008).

Dr. Ough speculated that the scent of the soap was responsible for the benefit. He tested soap-scented oil (SSO) in a skin patch for the relief of fibromyalgia pain. He reported: "It was found that the SSO skin patch consistently and adequately relieved muscular pain" (Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, Sept. 2008).

Although most people associate the soap remedy with nighttime leg cramps, Dr. Ough reports that a soap skin patch helps with muscle spasms such as menstrual cramps or intestinal cramps. We have even heard from people who find that holding a bar of soap is an effective way to banish hand cramps:

"I am prone to very painful hand and finger cramps. When they strike, I massage them or run hot and cold water over the hands, but nothing works but time.

"Today my left hand was in terrible pain that wouldn't cease. I went to the Internet and looked up Home Remedies for Hand Cramps. I saw the suggestion on your website, PeoplesPharmacy.com, about holding a bar of soap and immediately opened a new bar. When I held it in my aching hand, POOF -- the pain went away within seconds. It seemed like a miracle."

Until Dr. Ough's imaginative research there was no explanation for this effect. Now we have some science to suggest how the soap might be working to ease muscle cramps and pain. The herbal oils in the soap scent may have antispasmodic action. We don't know of a more affordable remedy for such common problems.

We suspect that many different kinds of soaps (except the fragrance-free) would benefit those afflicted with nighttime leg cramps. We have, however, created a flat bar that is less disruptive to sleep. You'll find it in our store listed as Bed Soap, and that is how it is intended to be used. Of course, once the aroma has dwindled, it is good in the shower or bath as well.

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20 Comments

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Have shared this before, but doesn't hurt to post it again!

Mom used to have 'killer cramps (made her cry when they hit her), so I used the soap, under her sheet. Worked so I thought why not let her stuff some cloth bags with shaved ivory in them in daytime, she agreed to carry them inside her socks!

She has never ever compined about killer cramps any more.

So help me GOD, I speak the truth

I had qualms about the soap remedy for leg cramps but following the death of my husband, I developed calf and foot cramps 2 or 3 times a night for almost a week and I thought I would give it a try.

To my astonishment, it worked. And I have been cramp free since then and I now tout that remedy to anyone who complains of cramps. It has also helped with hand cramps when playing cards and I started carrying one of the small soaps in my purse from hotels/motels and they have come in handy a number of times

As a veterinarian, I am dismayed at the way some "human doctors" scoff at the idea that home remedies have credibility. Just because it wasn't taught in medical school (or vet school) does not make it untrue. I am continually updating my knowledge base! There are practices that were taught to me in school 20 years ago that are no longer valid or useful.

And remember, just because it can't be seen does not mean it's not there. People scoffed at "invisible" causes of disease once upon a time....hello, bacteria and viruses. And we know that there are pheromones that affect behavior; these can't be seen, either. Would the doctors also scoff at dogs that can detect when a person will have a seizure or have low blood sugar levels?

What is so hard to believe about molecules off-gassing from soap affecting our bodies? Many scientists are now studying the off-gassing of materials that are thought to be harmful. Please doctors, think like the diagnosticians you were trained to be! Look for the answers in unusual places and keep an open mind!

Mostly, listen to your patients! You're lucky--yours can talk!

I really enjoy reading comments re the use of Ivory soap under the fitted sheet. I, too, laughed to myself but, when no one was looking , placed the bar in my bed.

It works!!! I have passed this info to many friends whom, I might say, are surprised because they know I even check prescriptions before getting them filled.....and now suggest this!!

Many thanks for being brave enough to write about it!

As far as I can tell, the wrapped bar of Dial soap
under my sheet has no detectable odor but
is fantastic at eliminating my (formerly nightly) leg cramps.

I read the article about the soap in the bed. Should it be placed under the fitted sheet or on top? Thanks!!!

Where can you get the soap pathes?

Is there a preferred brand of soap to use? I've seen Ivory and Dial mentioned, but wondered if the brand makes a difference.

I get killer leg cramps too, more like shooting pains in upper thigh or anywhere really. This is remedy will certainly be tried soon! Decided to get out some little hotel soaps and shave them into a muslin bag and place under the fitted sheet. We'll see! I'll try to report back! WOW- hope it works!

I suffer from nighttime leg cramps so I went for the leg soap sold here. IT DOES NOT WORK! I've always been a sucker for something that seems to good to be true. Guess I bit again.

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE: We're sorry to learn it didn't work for you. Others have had a better experience.

I was very skeptical about putting a bar of soap under the sheet until I tried it over three years ago. Previously, I had been getting up two or three times a night to walk off the cramps. I have to replace the bar of Ivory about every three to six months, possibly because it loses the fragrance. Had not heard about shaving and bagging the soap, but will try it. This is the easiest, cheapest solution to my leg cramp problems.

I was told about this remedy four years ago. I had had chemo and one of the drugs had damaged nerves in my legs and feet. I had severe cramps every single night and sometimes in the daytime as well. I did not dare en try to tighten the muscles in my feet. I thought the remedy sounded strange but I was ready to try anything.

As soon as I started using Ivory soap I never had another charlie horse. After a few months, when the bar started getting old I could feel the cramps starting again so replaced the bars with fresh ones and immediately had relief. They have worked extremely well until about 3-4 months ago. Now I am again getting cramps at night even though the soap is in the bed. I tried fresh ones but they are not helping as much as they used to.

Last night it happened twice. When I got up and rubbed the soap over the areas the pain lessened, but why would this remedy quit work after 3 1/2 years?

I am a skeptic. I also suffer from leg and foot cramps. I had nothing to lose, so I tried putting a bar of Irish Spring at the bottom of my bed. I felt stupid doing it. But I haven't had a cramp since.

I had pain in my knees that made it difficult to sleep. At times it was so bad, I would wake up moaning several times a night. Six months ago I saw the article about Ivory Soap under the sheet & tried it. After only 2 nights, my knee pain was gone. I know it sounds crazy but it worked and continues to work.

I am holding a bar of Dove soap in my left hand as I type. My hand pain is so bad I'll try anything. It has stopped the aching. I want to understand the mechanism of why this helps, is it pulling the pain out with the lye or is it the smell? This is intriguing....

I use Irish Spring. I haven't had a cramp since. It's been so long I don't remember when. When I do have little warnings in my calf I know I need to get a fresh bar. Dove doesn't work for me. I don't know why.

I have great success using unscented bars of Dove.

I am wondering if this is a mineral deficiency since cramps can be caused by electrolyte imbalances. I tried the soap for 3 nights and it worked but the 4th night it caused cramps in my left foot, I moved my foot away and the cramps stopped, moved my foot back and they started again. Moved the soap to my hip area and 4 hours later I felt a pulling in my hip/ lower back, I moved the soap and it stopped. When I got up it felt like my back had "gone out".

I don't understand why this had the opposite affect on me, maybe my electrolytes are way out of balance. I am also wondering if anyone has thought about the molecular structure of soap being the reason for the affect it has on people, positive and negative charges in the molecules being attracted to the electrolytes?? I am no scientist so I can't explain it, just a hunch.

I am curious if your situation changed (did the soap start working again) or do you still have the cramps? Thanks.

Did you get any answers to your questions? I am aware of living objects having fields of energy. The idea of an inanimate object having a field that interacts with an animate entity intrigues me. I am also impressed with your analytical approach. Thanks.

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