Quinine is one of the oldest drugs in the pharmacy. Even before the Spanish discovered the New World, native healers in Peru were using the bark of the cinchona tree to treat fever, malaria and indigestion. An Augustinian monk wrote about the uses of the “fever tree” back in 1633.
In Europe, this bark proved useful for treating the fever and chills of malaria. Chemists later determined that the active ingredient in this healing bark was quinine, and it was used around the world wherever mosquitoes carried the disease. The British even incorporated it into their “tonic water.”
No one in the United States has worried about malaria for decades. But quinine was popular as a treatment for nighttime leg cramps. For years, people bought this drug in over-the-counter products such as Legatrin, Q-vel and Quinamm to relieve muscle cramps.
In 1994 the FDA banned quinine from over-the-counter sale. The agency decided that quinine was too dangerous for people to take without medical supervision.
Quinine can cause serious side effects, including life-threatening anemia and irregular heartbeats. Other hazards include severe headache, visual disturbances, rash, itching, ringing in the ears, nausea, diarrhea and liver damage. If a pregnant woman took quinine, her baby could be born with a defect.
The FDA maintains that leg cramps are not a serious health problem, while quinine can be lethal. Over the years, more than 90 people have died of quinine complications.
Despite this, nearly two million Americans took quinine to relieve their leg cramps.
Doctors continued to prescribe quinine sulfate for restless legs as well as leg cramps.
Now, however, the FDA is cracking down. Only one brand of quinine will be allowed on the market. Qualaquin is approved only for treating certain types of malaria, and it costs more than $4 per pill.
The more rigorous ban may pose problems for millions. One reader wrote, “It was refreshing that our doctor prescribed quinine sulfate for my husband’s restless leg syndrome. He takes one pill each night before bedtime and gets wonderful results.”
Even people who have used quinine successfully for years won’t have access to it now. The trouble is that there aren’t very many other medications that can relieve leg cramps.
We discuss a number of home remedies and other approaches to this common problem in our Guide to Leg Pain. One reader had good results from an inexpensive remedy:
“After suffering with leg cramps for over 30 years, I heard about putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet of the bed. Nothing kept me from having to get up and massage my feet and legs until I tried the soap. What a relief to be able to finally get a good night’s sleep!”
Other approaches to leg cramps include drinking low-sodium V-8 juice, consuming extra calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. Some even report that a little yellow mustard can relieve nighttime leg cramps.