bars of soap

Many years ago we received a message from a reader of our syndicated newspaper column about putting soap under the bottom sheet to prevent nighttime leg cramps:

“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.”

Since that early letter we have received hundreds of messages from people all around the world regarding the soap treatment for muscle cramps. Many doctors (and quite a few non-health professionals) are absolutely convinced this is total nonsense. They chalk it up to a placebo effect, largely because they cannot imagine how it could possibly work.

Two thoughtful and curious readers came up with a hypothesis. They submitted the following explanation for the benefit of the skeptics:

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

Several years ago, the advice columnist 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.

A Potential Explanation:

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:

What People Report:

  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.

Conclusions:

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.

Refreshing the Soap:

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.

Soap Scented Oil (Fragrance): The Magic Molecules?

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.

Who Will Test the Hypothesis?

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.

Soap for Other Pain Problems?

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.

An Update on Derek and Hugh’s Hypothesis:

Several years ago an anesthesiologist by the name of Dr. Ough actually did some research on soap to relieve cramps. At that time he was working at Beloit Memorial Hospital in Beloit, Wisconsin. He reported his findings in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare (Sept. 2, 2008):

“…I assembled a skin patch made of crushed bar soap, and achieved successful results in regards to relief of muscle cramping and pain. I further experimented with the use of this soap patch for various other painful medical conditions.

“It was noted that the soap patch was successful in relieving pain from muscle cramps, knots, and even the trigger point pain associated with chronic myofascial pain syndrome. The soap patch also is effective for smooth muscle spasms, relieving the pain from menstrual cramps, intestinal cramps, and kidney stone.

“Hypothesizing that the scent of the soap was the active ingredient responsible for alleviating pain, I have since assembled the skin patches with a soap-scented oil (SSO), rather than bar soap itself, and hope to continue to expand its applications to other disease states…

“…I hypothesize that the active ingredient in the SSO skin patch is the scent itself. This would represent a new and unique method of medicinal delivery, because the scent is seemingly absorbed through the skin and not via the olfactory system.

“From these results, I conclude that the SSO skin patch is a safe and effective topical treatment for the pain of fibromyalgia.”

Joe’s Alternate Explanation for the Soap “Cure”

The world changed for us when we learned about research carried out by a Harvard neurobiologist, Bruce Bean, PhD and his buddy Rod McKinnon, MD (a Nobel prize winner). They concluded that muscle cramps are caused by overstimulation of nerves rather than by dehydration or electrolyte depletion. They heard about the old wives’ tale that eating a spoonful of yellow mustard or drinking an ounce of pickle juice could interrupt muscle cramps within minutes.

After years of experimentation they were able to explain this phenomena through nerve stimulation of the mouth, throat and stomach. TRP receptors in those organs were affected by strong flavors (cinnamon, ginger, hot pepper extract). Within minutes, stimulation of those sensory nerves could interrupt muscle cramps in legs. Details of their research efforts can be found at this link.

Soap Stimulating Nerves:

Now that we know muscle cramps are triggered by overactive nerves and can be calmed by stimulating sensory neurons in the mouth, esophagus and stomach working through the spinal cord, we think we have an explanation for the soap “cure.” The soap scented oil that is the basis for the fragrance that Derek and Hugh write about above could also be stimulating sensory nerves in the legs.

It turns out that there are both olfactory (smell) and taste receptors in the skin. We are normally not aware of them, but they exist. It is entirely possible that fragrance in soap creates a low-level of sensory stimulation that goes through the spinal column and calms the nerves causing muscle cramps. Because it is a much slower process than swallowing strong flavors (like mustard or vinegar), it can take a day or two for the effect to manifest itself. We think that the most active ingredient is limonene, a volatile fragrance derived from the rinds of limes, lemons and oranges.

Soap for Hand Cramps:

Many people have told us that when they get hand cramps they can interrupt them quickly by holding a bar of soap. Here is a link that describes this exact scenario.

Holding a Bar of Soap to Banish Hand Cramps

We recognize that this is all a hypothesis rather than proof positive. But we think that nerve stimulation represents a plausible explanation and enhances the theory that Derek and Hugh offer at the top of this article.

What do you think? Have you experienced quick cramp relief from mustard, pickle juice or tonic water (another strong flavor that likely stimulates nerves)? Has the soap trick worked to prevent leg cramps. Share your experience below in the comment section and let us know what you think of our revised theory. At the time of this revision there are over 300 comments. Why not take a moment to read some of them and add your own.

People’s Pharmacy Bed Soap

Revised: by Joe Graedon, 10/20/16

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  1. DarB
    Tucson, AZ
    Reply

    I was very skeptical when I first read this (actually, I laughed my head off!), but I have such severe problems with foot and leg cramps that I’ll try just about anything. To my complete surprise, it worked immediately! For years, I’ve had such bad cramps in both legs and feet at night that sometimes it feels like my bones are actually going to snap into pieces because the muscles are cramped up so tightly. I’ve tried everything that anyone has ever suggested (and yes, I drink about a gallon of RO water every day, eat fruits and vegetables, take mineral and enzyme supplements), and nothing has worked. The only thing that has ever worked was to get out of bed and walk around the house for 20 minutes or so, and sometimes my feet and legs were so cramped up that I couldn’t straighten them out enough to be able to walk, so I’d have to lean against the wall for a few minutes until I could stand up. This has been happening almost every night, sometimes twice a night, for at least five years.

    Imagine my amazement when something as simple as a bar of soap made it all stop immediately. After reading about it here, I now keep a bar of soap in bed, positioned between my lower calf and ankle, and … for joy, for joy!! … no more cramps to speak of. In the past two weeks since I started using the soap trick, I have only had a couple of very minor cramps (small, “normal” cramps, nothing bone-cracking like before). When that happened, I held the soap directly against the cramp, and it completely stopped within about 10 seconds. Unbelievable !!! I’m hopeful that soon the cramps will stop completely, when they realize that The Soap is here to stay!!!. Thank you, thank you, thank you to The People’s Pharmacy for all the wonderful (and sometimes weird) information that you share.

  2. Merdene
    N.
    Reply

    I am trying the Ivory soap for what is a leg cramp behind the knee that feels like a throbbing ache rather than severe sharp pain. It takes five or ten minutes to subside; however, I bought an OTC topical medication for the condition, and it soothes and warms the skin very quickly so that the cramp goes away. The fact that I get the cramps in only one leg makes me think that an old injury (from falling off a bike as a kid) may come back in the form of a leg cramp. I wonder if, since the oils and perfumes in soap may ease the pain, wouldn’t perfume itself, or essential oils work also?

  3. Kathleen
    Washington IA
    Reply

    I know it sounds absolutely crazy but my 92 year old mother had suffered with leg cramps for years and now I started having trouble. I TELL YOU IT WORKS! I don’t care why; I’m just happy to get a good night’s rest. I use Ivory but it sounds like others have results with any brand.

  4. Michele
    VIRGINIA
    Reply

    Soap in the bed is the only thing that works for me. I have always had terrible foot cramps but had begun to also have calf cramps that were unbearable. My parents told me that their doctor had recommended the soap trick and had no idea why it worked. I tried it and it’s fantastic.

    I’ve been doing it for a month, and suddenly I’ve started getting some minor cramping again. I think it’s time to score or shave the soap. So glad that I read this article!

  5. Mary
    London
    Reply

    It works. Without a doubt. Thanks for the great article.

  6. Gail
    VA
    Reply

    I read a doctor’s blog on soap to prevent leg cramps. I started to get a very bad cramp in my right leg about twice a week, and often have foot cramps. I thought, “Silly, but what do I have to lose?” IT WORKS!! I find it actually prevents it if I feel one coming on and I put the bar of soap directly on the area. One night I woke up with a cramp and couldn’t remember where the soap was (in the bathroom). This is proof enough for me.

  7. Bonnie
    Phoenix, AZ
    Reply

    I have Systemic Lupus, IBS, and Sjogren’s. Unfortunately, my immune system flares at the drop of a hat, so my doctor and I have had to go to alternative therapies for any relief/treatment. I have to be very careful what I do for myself at any given time as I will react to things normally prescribed to anyone with these conditions. I had leg cramps plague me for several years and heard of this bit of placing a bar of soap between the sheets, near my feet, several times and thought this was just too simple. But, I do know that “simple” is sometimes best and gave it a try. Instead of just placing the bar between the top and bottom/fitted sheets, though, I rubbed it onto the fitted bottom sheet and then left it there where it would lay between my feet. The leg cramps stopped, not just at night, but during the day as well. I removed the bar to see if that would make a difference; it really didn’t. I like to keep it there, though.

    So, I thought, perhaps, there was a placebo effect going on here and decided to try this with my husband without him knowing about it. I rubbed a bar of soap on the area where his legs and feet lay at night, then slipped the bar under the fitted sheet. He didn’t notice it there. As he has RLS, diagnosed by his physician, he’s been given prescriptions for meds he can’t tolerate and didn’t want to go that route. Now, the RLS has stopped and, when he told his physician about the soap, once I’d revealed to him my little experiment, his physician is left scratching his head. That doctor has told my husband that he’s going to try it himself, though.

    As I also have severe cramping in my hands, I now use nothing but bar soap to wash them with. Most of those cramps have ceased and they only come up slightly when I’ve been using my hands a lot for typing, cooking, or cleaning.

    I wouldn’t suggest anyone go off their meds or do anything against their physician’s guidance, but as this really doesn’t seem to hurt or have any negative side effects, what’s the harm in it. All a person is out is the cost of a bar of soap. The brand I’m using is Jergen’s and that, to me, is very nice. As I rub it on the bottom sheet almost nightly, that refreshes the surface of the bar and releases whatever goodness that’s in it to help it do its job, it seems. After doing this for several months now, I’ve not had a flare or rash develop, which is awesome for me.

  8. Salvatore
    New Jersey
    Reply

    I would get leg cramps just about every night, when I heard a lady masseuses on the internet say you will not believe this until you try it. If you get leg cramps at night when in bed put a bar of soap under the covers with you, you can put it in a sock if you like, and you will not get cramps at night in bed any more, so I did and she was so right. I couldn’t stop telling people about it. I was having lunch in a restaurant at the shore, Sandy Hook, and I told a lady in the restaurant that was having leg cramps how to eliminate the cramps with a bar of soap. When I told her two men sitting next to me almost fell on the floor from laughing. Then they told me this friend of mine next to me said he has been using soap for cramps under the covers for years now and I never believed him, I thought he was just out of his mind.

  9. Norma
    Lake city florida
    Reply

    I’ve only tried for three nifhts, but that’s three nights without cramps. You’ve got to love those old wives tales.

  10. Shy
    Reply

    Do you guys have a similar explanation for the similarly strange belief that putting a bundle of wine corks in your bed can also stop cramps? I’ve heard this recently from people who swear by it but can’t fathom the theory behind such a belief.

    • Terry Graedon
      Reply

      Never heard that one. It’s hard to imagine it would be comfortable…or that it would work. If somebody tries it, please report.

  11. Dianne
    San pedro
    Reply

    My husband lost his his leg in a motorcycle accident and get a phantom pain and nerve pain. And recently he has been experiencing really bad leg cramps in his right calf a few times a night. That leg is stressed from doing extra work to support him sometimes. Anyway, he researched and found a link about soap and leg cramps. He decided to give it a try but instead of putting under the sheet he puts directly on the leg and it’s been 7 straight nights and not in any time during his sleep has he woken up with a cramp. They’re GONE! And his short leg nerve pain has severely decreased and some of those nights it’s 100% calm. So people can say what they want about this being all in people’s mind that it’s working, I see first hand every night that’s it is really working and thank God. Can’t hurt to try it and see for yourself.

  12. Vicki
    Illinois
    Reply

    I have had leg cramps for years and nothing I tried would help me. A friend at work kept telling me to use the soap under the sheets method. I thought she was crazy! After a week of waking up 2-3 times a night with horrible cramps that took 10-15 min to walk off, I finally decided to try putting a bar of soap between the sheets. It has been a week now, and I’ve not had one cramp!!! I am so excited! I even feel better because I can have a full nights sleep with no interruptions.

    • Gail
      Reply

      I also put it right on my leg or foot and NO CRAMPS!!

  13. Joe
    nsw
    Reply

    As a cynic I was skeptical about this remedy. My sister told me about it and in the five years since I’ve had no night cramps. A week ago I was away from home and forgot to use soap in the bed. I had cramp twice during the night. Next night I used soap and had no recurrence. I have however experienced “pre-cramp” feelings at night and some cramp during the day.

  14. gloria
    Indiana
    Reply

    Sometimes I will wear the bar of soap in socks IT works I don’t know why but it does.

  15. Critina
    South America
    Reply

    My name is Cristina from Asuncion, Paraguay. Many years ago a friend told me about ubbing a bar o soap on the cramp area. I have never heard of putting it on the bed but for sure there us a bar on my night table. I can testify any time in front of whoever that it works. I assure you that it is not placebo effect because i have try every wife tale and nothing worked. Eating bananas before bed and during the cramp. Stepping on cold tle floor. Running hot water. Massaging. Oatmeal paste, just to mention some options. Nothing works. The soap for me works like magic, instantaneously. In all truth I do not care why it works but it does. Thanks for the research and explanation

  16. Judith
    Windsor Ontario Canada
    Reply

    I have suffered with leg cramps most of my adult life.tonic water helped for a while but I don’t think they put as much quinine in the water any more because of the harmful effect on the liver. Soap under the sheets is a blessing it has ended my leg cramps and allowed me to get a good night’s sleep

  17. Judy
    Hendersonville, NC
    Reply

    Is one soap better then another

    • Katie
      Alabama
      Reply

      In my experience a soap with a stein smell like Coast or Zest works best.

  18. Sue
    Bunnythorpe New Zealand
    Reply

    I am a believer of the soap in the sheets thing. Personally I did not think it would work but I decided to give it a go and since I have had a bar of lavender soap in my bed, I have not had cramp at all. I am thinking about not taking my magnesium each night now just to see if the soap theory is correct. I am hoping so as it would be cheaper for me. However, on another note, I remember my late dad having a bar of camphor in his bed as he also suffered with night cramps badly. He swore the camphor alleviated the cramps also.

  19. Louise
    South Carolina
    Reply

    Myself and the majority of my family suffer from the Family Curse — severe leg cramps at least once a night. One day a friend asked why I was so tired, I explained I had been woken up every hour the night before with severe leg cramps so yes, I was exhausted.

    She asked if I’d ever tried soap under the sheets. I thought she was crazy, but I was desperate. I had immediate relief and have had no cramps in my legs since sleeping with a bar of soap. It may seem crazy, but I don’t care — it works!

  20. Rhoni
    Georgia
    Reply

    I placed a bar of soap in my daughter’s bed because she’d complained with her legs hurting. I am the one that changes the bed so the next time I changed the bed I removed the soap and she complained her legs hurt again. So I replaced the soap and they stopped. I haven’t told her about this and she hasn’t noticed it. What teen would. I make her bed ,change it weekly. So it works. She hasn’t complained with leg cramps in over a year . Hell a package of soap is 3 bars for dollar at local dollar store , so if that keeps us out of Dr office then I’ll spend that every 6 months.

  21. Lori
    Rochester, New York
    Reply

    I’ll tell you what!!! I’ve been experiencing leg cramps for a very, very long time in addition to my legs feeling like they have little spiders, if you will, crawling on them!! That soap trick’s working is NOT NOT NOT IN MY head! If doctors or other health care providers experienced this they would know it does work!! Sure I was standoffish but it’s soap under the sheets. It either works or it doesn’t. IT DOES, so all the naysayers “boo” to you! If you’re experiencing cramps in the legs, give it a try!

  22. Pat
    GA
    Reply

    I, too, was skeptical when I saw a woman holding a bar of soap on an internet page and claiming relief from nightly leg cramps. But sharing her cramping experience, I was willing to try it — it would only cost a bar of soap. If it didn’t work I’d just put it in the shower! Blessed relief!!! Several relatives and friends have now taken my advice to “try it” with positive results. I hope research may expand the unique “treatment” for other types of pain too. I’ve used Dove because that’s what I had on hand—so, for months now, my husband and I have slept “cramp free” with two bars under the fitted sheet!!!

    • Virginia M
      Brentwood CA 94513
      Reply

      I rub the bottom of my feet after a shower with soap and put socks on.

      It relieved my RLS. When I first heard about it I was spectical but how much does a bar of soap cost and it works.

      Just putting it under the sheet does not work and be sure your feet are clean before you do it.

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