a glass of tonic water with a slice of lemon

Q. I have suffered with leg cramps for years. I used to buy quinine in the drugstore until the FDA banned it.

Then I discovered tonic water. I drink a glass every other night and my leg cramps are no more. If I don’t, they are back within two weeks.

Someone who has never had these cramps cannot understand the pain. In my case, it lasts for two days. If the FDA ever bans the small amount of quinine in tonic water, I will go out and buy every bottle I can find and store them in my cellar!

A. It is unlikely the FDA will ever ban quinine in tonic water. The dose is low and the hue and cry would be huge, mostly from lovers of gin and tonic.

Many others agree that tonic water helps them avoid nighttime leg cramps. Here are a few stories:

“My doctor prescribed a gin and tonic at night before bedtime for my leg cramps and nervous hand syndrome. I had been getting up almost every night and walking the cramps off. I had tried the soap in the bed and mustard, neither of which helped.

“After starting the tonic before bedtime, I have gotten up only 4 times in the past 12-15 months.” CL Wilder

“I had 3 knee replacements on the same knee and had to wear very uncomfortable braces for 6 weeks each time. I got very painful and long tasting leg cramps while wearing the brace after the first replacement and would scream and yell and scared the heck out of my dogs.

“I called the doctor sobbing and he asked if I had any tomato juice at home and I said yes. He told me pour it down my throat-no sips, just to guzzle it down and the cramp would disappear.

“To my amazement, as soon as I finished the glass the cramp totally disappeared! The leg was still sore but the cramp was gone. I had friends buy me lots of canned tomato juice and always kept them by my bed because it was very had to get moving with a leg brace and a cramp.

“Any tomato juice will do, even V8.

“I have told friends about it and they say it has really helped them. My doctor said that the tomato juice worked because it hit the stomach and didn’t have to be digested.

“I also tried the quinine but it made me sick. There is always tomato juice in my house and at the Senior Center where I volunteer.” Martha

“I’ve been plagued with nocturnal leg cramps for several years, and nothing seemed to keep me from getting up three to six times every night to walk out the cramps…including sugar-free tonic. (I’m an active, youthful 72 with a number of structural aggravations and very mild peripheral neuropathy.)

“I know that over-exercising, including walking, is a major trigger… BUT, just sitting around “resting” makes it worse! For the past year, I have been taking a Pilates class once a week, which I augment with riding my stationary bicycle and a variety of daily calf/shin exercises and stretches that I cleared with my long-time physical therapist. Thankfully, the worst of the problem has disappeared. However, I am puzzled why the only time I have leg cramps now is an hour or so before I am to wake up… maybe two-three times a month. Pursuing physical therapy as a way of life is the most sensible route to relief, since there are myriad other benefits to be gained!” AR McR

Keep in mind that some people are very sensitive to quinine and must avoid it. If you develop rash or unusual bleeding, don’t delay in seeking medical attention. Ask the physician to rule out idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (yes, it’s a huge mouthful; abbreviated ITP).

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  1. Pat

    I had quite a bit of tonic last night and suffered terrible cramp in my toes, across the top of my feet, and up the front lower part of both of my legs. All where there isn’t much muscle to rub. It hurt so much I cried. So for me tonic isn’t the answer.

  2. Jim A

    Tonic with quinine works for my leg cramps – I use it only occasionally because my cramps are not frequent.

  3. B

    You should have made a clear statement, however, that prescription quinine is not at all approved by the FDA for leg cramps. They warn against it because of possible severe side effects (bleeding, kidney damage, etc). While I’m sure the level of quinine in tonic water is small, no one should try to chug huge quantities of tonic water to try to match prescription levels. That would be dangerous. I’m sure that one drink per night would be fine. If that helps with your leg cramps, great.

  4. Americo Sanchez

    I write from Trujillo,Peru. I am reading about cramps and it is very interesting all people says,but if You want to eliminate the Cramps just only take Magnesium 500 mg every day. Magnesium works very well because I have the experience about my cramps. I am very well without cramps. You do not need any medicine.
    thanks to Joe and Terry Graedon

  5. robert weisberg

    quinine was excellent for leg cramps but was removed from market because of risk (albeit small) of severe thrombocytopenia. Tonic water can have the same beneficial effect on leg cramps but since the side effect of thrombocytopenia is idiosyncratic and not dose related, tonic water can cause the same problem. In fact when a patient presents with severe thrombocytopenia, one of the questions the physician should ask is”does the patient drink tonic water”.
    By the way, I enjoy your weekly article and read it faithfully (Dallas Morning News) and appreciate the information (usually quite accurate) you impart to the public, and the fact that you back up most information with published references.

  6. KEA

    Since quinine is still available in Europe for patients, I want to see the studies that caused the FDA not only to make quinine a prescription drug, but to BAN it!
    We all can read and hear about the awful side effects of every drug, but we can’t have that option with quinine anymore of learning about its possible side effects and then working with our doctors about the advantages or disadvantages of using it. I have an elderly friend (in her 90’s) who’s husband gets her quinine. She takes a pill every night before retiring and has for years to prevent the awful sleep shattering cramping that is her lot without it.
    I once took a quinine pill after I was awakened by those awful cramps.’ No more. None of the remedies I read about on this site have helped. I’ve tried them all.
    Yes, please give us the rational used by the FDA to allow other meds with awful side effects to be dispensed but not quinine.

  7. Dennis

    Love tonic water-gin or no gin!! A thirst quencher and helps with the cramps.

  8. Paul 43

    I would like to hear more about this remedy.

  9. Nina Y.

    I was bothered by occasional leg cramps and tried tonic water and the soap without results. A friend told me that she has been using a tablespoon of Pedialyte pediatric electrolyte liquid with great results, and it works for me, too. I wonder why and how it works – I have no idea.

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