bars of soap

We admit that putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet near your feet seems like a strange way to prevent leg cramps. Many health professionals insist that it is pure placebo. But we think there are plausible explanations for why soap soothes leg cramps. Here is how it all got started:

A Surprising Soap Story:

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 and leg cramps. Many doctors (and quite a few non-health professionals) are absolutely convinced this is total nonsense. They chalk it up to suggestibility, 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 (transient receptor potential) channels 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 or leg 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 a new 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.

A chemist who specializes in volatile ingredients told us several years ago that the most popular soaps for leg cramps had limonene in them. This chemical is derived from the skin of lemons, limes and other citrus fruits. It is used as a fragrance and flavoring in cosmetics and other products. He was convinced that this fragrance somehow affected the body to prevent leg cramps.

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 limonene could be the key ingredient. Some soaps have a lot of limonene while others have very little. This could account for why some people report success and others are disappointed with the soap they use to prevent leg cramps.

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.

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)? If so, we are convinced that you are activating TRP channels in your mouth, throat and stomach that affect your spinal column. That turns off the misfiring nerves next to your cramping muscles.

Has the soap trick worked for you to prevent muscle or 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 400 comments. Why not take a moment to read some of them and add your own.

Revised: by Joe Graedon, 9/28/17

By the way, we have added extra limonene to our Bed Soap. Here is what people say about this product:

Donna Jo in North Carolina states:

“It has really helped my RLS [restless leg syndrome] after I go to bed.”

Lucille in Texas shares:

“I like it and so does my husband. He uses it for restless leg and I for cramps. So far, it seems to work. Better than anything else I have tried.”

Cheryl in Richmond, Virginia loves Bed Soap:

“I love this soap and use it every night. It does help me in preventing night time leg/foot cramps. Also love the smell! So does my 5 year old granddaughter!”

Of course not everyone loves the smell of lavender (which helps some people fall asleep at night). Another fragrance is found in our Leg Soap. You can put these tiny soap chips in your socks at night or during the day.

Let us know if soap works for you to ease leg cramps, hand cramps, restless leg syndrome or anything else that goes bump in the night. Here is a link to our body care products, including bed soap and leg soap.

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  1. Patricia T
    Vancouver, BC
    Reply

    My Osteopath suggested that I try to soap bar remedy, and it worked immediately.
    I am very thankful as I never would have happened upon this by myself.

  2. Linda
    NC
    Reply

    I have had Restless Leg Syndrome for many years. 10 years ago I heard from friends that a bar of Ivory soap under the sheet at the foot of the bed stopped the twitching and cramping. Tried it, and it worked! I read in the article above that the soap remedy can help with relieving Fibromyalgia, so I will certainly try that. I have always used Ivory, I buy it in the 8 pack, don’t want to run out :)

  3. Bill
    MI
    Reply

    My wife, who had finally and suddenly succumbed to heart disease used to have terrible leg cramps and wake me at night when she was in pain. I felt so bad for her. I would sit and massage her calves and feet until the cramps eased so we could sleep. The doctor gave her vitamins and meds and ran blood tests and nothing seemed to help. She worked in the medical field as a medical transcriber for decades so she was knowledgeable in that field. I looked online for home remedies to see if I could find something. I read about using soap between the sheets. We were shopping so I said let’s get a big pack of bar soap and try it. She was skeptical, to say the least. I said, “no lose because we’ll use the soap if it doesn’t work”. We put it under the sheet and it worked until the soap would get old and she would replace it. She swore by it after that even though she and her doctor couldn’t explain why it worked.

  4. Lorraine
    Ontario
    Reply

    I started putting a bar of soap (Lily of the Valley) under my top sheet a few weeks ago after hearing that a friend of mine did it and it worked. I would get restless feet and leg and foot cramps before bed. I had been using 100% Lavender Oil, even during the day when I would get foot cramps, and it did work extremely well. I have been telling everyone to use it. Now I get complete relief at night with the bar of soap under the top sheet. I’ve even put a piece of soap in my sock when I have a problem during the day and it works too. And I believe as well, the bar of soap helps me to sleep. Even when I get up, which is usually a few times a night, I have no problem falling right back to sleep. So very big bonus there. It really works….so now I will be telling everyone about the bar of soap in the bed! Just remember it’s in there when you change your bed (you’ll wonder what the thud is when it hits the floor) and it seems you have to refresh it or put in a new bar maybe once a month. It truly works!

  5. Cord
    TN
    Reply

    Left hand cramped today, drew out of shape and was very painful. Put a bar of soap in my hand, and the cramping stopped immediately.

  6. GWEN
    EDMONTON,ALBERTA
    Reply

    For years I had terrible leg and feet cramps at night. To the point where I had to get out of bed and try to walk them out!!! Horrible, horrible cramps!! I read about this soup under sheet “treatment” and tried it that very night. Weeks and weeks go by and I’m cramp free.

    I take the bar out of it’s wrapper and put it under my bottom sheet. I’ve told a few people,some are willing to try and some not. I just figure if the cramps are bad enough they will try it and if not, so be it.

    Frankly, I don’t care if it is the “placebo effect.” It works for me and I’m staying with it!!! And I’m very grateful to whoever came up with this in the first place.

    Once in a while I do have painful cramps in my hands but I never though about trying a bar of soap but the next time it happens I can promise that I will!!!

  7. Anne
    California
    Reply

    It will be considered “scientific” when some pharmaceutical company produces a “Miracle Bar” and markets it at $50.00 each or more! Personally, I laughed at myself for falling for the soap story and now only smile when I wake up after a restful cramp-free night! Never mind why it works….

  8. Nancy
    Florida
    Reply

    I read your articles frequently and read about the soap for leg cramps years ago. My husband is very skeptical so I put the soap in the bed and didn’t tell him. He stopped having leg cramps and when I told him about the soap, he was surprised. I have shared this with many people since because I am a believer.

  9. Karen
    Manchester, MD
    Reply

    It was recommended to me by my physical therapist. I suffer with debilitating cramps on a regular basis. Like several times a week. It usually has me awake for at leadership 30 mins. Since using soap in my bed for the padt month, Ive only had cramps three times and they were very mild and as soon as I touch the soap with my feet the cramps go away completely!!! The weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced… ever!!! Definitely recommend it! Plus, like Ive been saying, what harm can it do if it doesn’t work for you? And your bed always smells nice and clean!

  10. Carol
    New York
    Reply

    My husband has suffered from leg cramps for years. Last year I read about the soap for leg cramps in your newsletter. Without telling him, I placed a bar of soap between the mattress pad and fitted sheet.

    A week went by and I asked him how his leg cramps were and he said he hadn’t had any. The next week, I asked again and received the same response. I then told him about the soap and he was amazed. No placebo effect here!

  11. Alexander
    Reply

    Bar of Soap works for me. Just do not forget replaced when it stop working.
    Full spoon of mustard works too.

  12. Carrie W
    Florida
    Reply

    I, too, put the soap in the sock when I go to bed — it seems to work much better that way. But, I didn’t remove the original soap under the sheets — couldn’t hurt.

    I have saved the soaps that seemed to run out of effectiveness, so now will shave off the top layer on them and use them over again — great idea! Thanks so much for helping us all to sleep!

  13. Rosemarie
    Appleton, wi
    Reply

    Rubbing it on your stomach for belly cramps also works. Wish I had known that when I suffered with the monthly cramping.

  14. Linda C.
    WA
    Reply

    I was very skeptical. I thought that all those people who said it worked were suckers who will believe anything. But the soap in my bed has been like a miracle! Before I frequently had severe leg cramps several times a night. They are now gone! Just to be sure it will work, I put several pieces in my bed near my calves every night.

  15. Pam
    Dallas, TX
    Reply

    I was introduced to bed soap several years ago after a lengthy stay in the hospital left me with twitching legs and cramps as I came off strong pain medicine. My sister suggested soap in the bed. I tried and it gave immediate relief.

    I have had other muscle aches and pains as well as abdominal cramps when I move my desk chair (on wheels) several times a day. So I went to your website and bought the small pieces of soap (Leg Soap) from you and attached them in various places on my body with Transpore tape. I am 67, work 8-10 hours a day with a lengthy commute. I would never be able to keep up without the soap pieces. They keep me from having pain and I can stay off strong meds for pain.

    I was so delighted to find your Leg Soap so that I do not have to shave the soap myself.

    I use this daily for chronic back pain and knee pain. This solution has been a life changer. Thank you for making the little soap chips!

  16. Susan
    Florida
    Reply

    I used to put a bar of Dial soap at the foot of the bed under the bottom sheet but it kept falling out so decided to try putting it in the drawer that holds pillowcases. It works just as well – my husband never has leg cramps.

  17. Carol
    Charlotte
    Reply

    I’ve used soap-under-the-sheets for several months and swear by it. I’ve also used a bar for hand cramps (just hold it in your hand for a few minutes and the cramp disappears) and for a very strong cramp in my upper leg. That happened as I was reaching across a bed while changing sheets and left me unable to walk because my let went numb. My hubby brought me a bar of soap, I rubbed it at the point of the cramp and all was well in about 3 minutes. I’d like to share a trick for keeping the soap in place under the sheet. Cut down a pair of stockings (not socks) to a little longer than the bar of soap. Gather the extra length and tie in a knot (like you’d tie a balloon). Then pin this little package to the bed pad, under the bottom sheet. Now it can’t be kicked off the bed! I’ve used the same two bars since the beginning and the fragrance is still great, so I believe that the nylon stocking helps to preserve the soap.

  18. Patricia G.
    WV
    Reply

    After hearing all these testimonials I decided to try the soap bar treatment and everyone is right, it does work. However, whenever I get the cramps I have to rub the bar across my leg or foot until the cramp goes away. Maybe the soap needs replaced.

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