yellow mustard, burn

We have been writing about strong flavors for combatting muscle cramps for more than 30 years. Initially, we were told that the quinine in tonic water was the best strategy for overcoming these painul cramps. Later, a spoonful of mustard became a favorite home remedy. We were also informed that a shot glass filled with pickle juice would do the trick. We had no explanation for these suggestions. Many health professionals pooh poohed the very idea that they could work, especially since many people reported that mustard for cramps worked in under two minutes.

Trying to Explain Mustard for Cramps:

Q. My father found out about the “mustard trick” from a runner who keeps packets in his pockets while on runs in case a cramp hits him. My father used to eat bananas every day for potassium to prevent muscle cramps. Then blood work showed his level was too high.

He’s given up bananas and is now using the mustard. So far it is working for him and stops the cramps within a couple of minutes!

A. Sports physiologists used to think that muscle cramps were due to dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. That’s why they often recommended potassium. But too much potassium can be deadly. There is now evidence that most cramps are not caused by dehydration or an imbalance in minerals like potassium.

The World is Flat Perspective (aka “Junk Science”):

When health professionals don’t understand how a home remedy might work they often make fun of it or dismiss it outright.

Here is one readers response to our articles on mustard for cramps:

“I am disappointed in your response to the person who claimed that swallowing a teaspoonful of mustard cured severe leg cramps in two minutes. You agreed with the writer that it was most likely the turmeric in mustard, or perhaps the vinegar, that eased the leg cramps.

“Explain please how anything that is swallowed could go through the digestive system, enter the blood stream, reach the writer’s legs and ease cramps-all in less than two minutes.

“This sounds like junk science and should be relegated to the trash bin, along with putting a bar of soap at the foot of the bed, under the sheets, to cure leg cramps. That’s another magic cure with no evidence.”

Evidence for the Doubters:

New research suggests that some muscle cramps may actually be triggered by nerve malfunction. Two neurobiologists, one a Nobel Prize winner, have found that overwhelming sensory neurons in the mouth, throat and stomach with strong flavors can quickly reverse many muscle cramps. That may explain why swallowing a teaspoonful of yellow mustard (or vinegar) is so effective for so many in such a short period of time.

Their research has demonstrated that stimulating sensory neurons can interrupt the muscle contractions responsible for cramps. And yes, it frequently works in under two minutes. Read all about this amazing discovery in the Wall Street Journal (July 11, 2016).

Take Home Message re: Mustard for Cramps:

Just because we cannot explain why a home remedy works does not mean it is “junk science” to quote our critic above. We do not think such remedies should be “relegated to the trash bin.”

We only wish more health professionals would take time to investigate the possible mechanisms behind home remedies. Nobel Prize winner, Rod MacKinnon, MD, and his colleague Bruce Bean, PhD, are neurobiologists. They wanted to know why the old wives’ tales might work and they went about discovering the answer.

Stories from Readers:

Sharon in Cleveland, Ohio tried drinking lots of liquid with no luck:

“I too am a believer in using mustard to relieve leg cramps. I learned about it 9 or 10 years ago, when your column was in our newspaper. I tend to get cramps in my hamstrings, calves and in the arches of my feet after hours of heavy physical labor in the yard involving lots of perspiration. It was agony when the cramps would strike in the middle of the night.

“I tried drinking more water throughout the day until my pee was as colorless as the water in my glass, I added extra salt to my food, drank a gallon of Gatorade… you name it, I tried it, but the cramps would have me in tears trying vainly to massage or walk them away.

“The mustard works so fast, I wonder if there’s a placebo effect at work here. Whatever it is I don’t care. It works first time, every time. I used to hobble down to the kitchen to retrieve mustard from the refrigerator and a tablespoon, but my clever husband suggested I use mustard packets. Now I keep a supply in the top drawer of my nightstand, within easy reach… 3 packets does the job for me. I’ve found that certain brands of mustard are more effective than others. You’ll have to experiment until you find the one that works best for you.”

Barry In Roanoke, Virginia say:

“I felt compelled to add my 2 cents worth to the “mustard stops muscle cramps” discussion. I laughed at my son’s suggestion to try this Voodoo hocus pocus but when I woke up in agony at 3am in the morning I hobbled to the kitchen and with no hesitation squirted the yellow goo down my gullet and to my amazement the painful leg cramps were gone! Placebo? Voodoo? A bottle of the yellow stuff now resides on my night stand.”

O.G. shares this:

“It may be woo-woo, it may be anecdotal, there may be no science behind it, and it may be the placebo effect — although I, and many writers, including many doctors, see nothing wrong with that — for me, the mustard works.

“I sometimes have isolated, excruciatingly painful, leg or foot cramps at zero dark: I eat a small packet of mustard, like you get in restaurants (which I keep in the bedside drawer) and by the time I can sputter “Yuccccch!” the cramp has dissipated.

“Whatever the reason, it works for me, and I’m grateful for whatever the ‘magic’ may be.”

Linda C. concurs:

“I have soap beneath my sheets, take magnesium at bedtime, have a homeopathic remedy for muscle cramps in my medicine cabinet and have tried yellow mustard as well. Only the mustard has had any effect – but I don’t find it especially palatable. Dill pickle juice is my antidote of choice. Perhaps it is the trek downstairs to the kitchen, perhaps it is a placebo effect – I really don’t care; it works and I can go back to sleep! In my opinion, as an R.N., the insistence on ‘double-blind, controlled studies’ to prove the efficacy of folk remedies is a bogus smoke screen created by Big Pharma.”

Are You Interested in Home Remedies?

If you think experience is worth something even if we do not understand the why behind a remedy, you may be interested in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. We have hundreds of stories from readers of our newspaper column and visitors to this website. You may be surprised at how effective these approaches can be for what ails you, even if we cannot explain why they work.

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  1. Zelda

    This would also explain why apple cider vinegar can stop a gallbladder attack. It worked for me most of the time, though not all.

    As for night time leg cramps, I take magnesium at night & it works for me.

  2. Donna

    Everyone is different from each other. (The old saying, different strokes for different people ) (it’s all good). Certain foods bother me and I know people who never have a problem with the food that makes me sick. (It’s life.)

  3. Northwesterner

    To the “Junk Science” assertion:

    Many, many pharmaceuticals are prescribed and used despite the fact that, based on their own research, their “specific method of action is not known”.

    First: do no harm. If a substance is benign and ineffective, at least it’s benign. If it’s benign and effective, that’s fabulous. Most modern medications are not benign, and most are at best marginally effective.

  4. Peggy

    I have been using yellow mustard, French’s, for years whenever I have had a cramp or Charlie Horse and within seconds, the most debilitating pain (I could barely walk) would be gone! A friend mentioned that she had a bad night due to a very bad cramp in the calf of her leg. I told her about mustard and she tried it as she still had a knot, which hurt in her leg.

    I didn’t think the Mustard would help at that point, but guess what? It DID!! My friend is a firm believer in mustard and so is everyone else I have told about it. Maybe the sceptic didn’t use enough, a spoonful of the right kind!

  5. Yvonne

    To Rex of Bedford. How did you write at 10:56 AM on the 4th when I put this up at 6:12 PM MN time on the 4th? Anyway you must have all the minerals as I put up on my first writing and take it for a while.

  6. Janet
    Lakeview, AR

    After working in the yard, I experienced a very painful cramp in my upper leg which brought me to tears. Something in the back of my mind was saying “eat mustard.” I did and the cramp was gone almost instantly. Placebo or not, it worked and I will use it again if needed.

  7. K
    Cincinnati, OH

    I am a scientist and have been around the block enough times to know better than to dismiss “folk” cures out of hand (or to accept published science without question!). I really appreciate Joe and Terry for their rational and nuanced approach. I have occasional cramps in the calves and toes at night and had been intrigued by the mustard remedy, however my problems are not that severe so I had not actually tried it. Upon hearing about the nerve stimulation explanation, I explored rubbing my tongue vigorously against the roof of my mouth in response to a cramp – a different form of nerve stimulation and a little less messy. I have done this for a couple of months, and it seems to work. It would be interesting to see if it works for others.

  8. Kathy

    Since mustard would not be my first choice,in the middle of the night, I have found two Tums also stops the painful cramps immediately. By the time you are back to bed they are gone.
    I tend to agree with the placebo effect of getting up and putting your legs in motion with walking to ones relief. Your brain has to concentrate on immediate relief.

  9. Carol Kroll

    If only mustard and pickle juice wouldn’t cause such heartburn for those of us with acid reflux. But unfortunately, it causes more pain for me than the muscle cramps.

  10. Corl

    Yes indeed mustard works for leg cramps. I have been using mustard for at least 10 years for legs cramps that usually hit in the middle of the night. Sometimes it takes 1 tablespoon, sometimes three. I have wondered if it was the sharp taste rather than the salt, vinegar, or turmeric. Doesn’t matter to me how it works only that it does.

  11. Rosemary
    San Diego

    The one possible problem with ingesting mustard for cramps would be that the excessive VINEGAR in ones mouth from the mustard would possibly erode tooth enamel!

    In reading all of the articles about adding Apple Cider Vinegar to your daily diet, ALL articles have contained a warning about rinsing your mouth after taking the vinegar to avoid the possible damage to your teeth.
    By the time you wake up, take the mustard, and THEN rinse your mouth (and spit it WHERE????), you would be wide awake.
    Anyone have any thoughts on the mustard /vinegar/tooth enamel problem???

  12. Ellen Childress
    Dallas, Texas

    My husband was recently hospitalized because of atrial flutter. He has neuropathy in his legs and feet and was getting leg cramps from the uncomfortable bed despite his efforts to get up and walk. He asked for yellow mustard for the cramps, and the charge nurse brought him a handful of mustard packets. The mustard
    worked quickly and efficiently, and the nurses came around to ask about it. Some knew about it from reading your columns and were delighted to see it work so well.

  13. Maggy

    Pickle juice also stops hiccups. My family has been using it as a hiccups remedy for years. Just drink a couple of tablespoons.

  14. OUalum
    Ardmore, OK

    I enjoyed the recent article about skin receptors. Recently I have had painful leg cramps. In a trip on impulse I wet the bar of soap and rubbed the wet lather in my leg. Immediately it stopped cramping. I brought piece of soap home and accidentally found the hotel sells on their web site. I ordered twelve hotel size bars. I have used it many times since this summer trip and shared two bars with friends with leg cramps. I believe the quick action is due to neuron receptors either to the scent in the soap or the only three ingredients which contain sodium. One was sodium from coconut oil and one was from palm oil and the other from animal fat. So amazing to read a possible explanation on your site which I have read over twenty years.

  15. Rex
    Bedford Indiana

    I have tried it several times – it has never worked for me.

  16. Stephanie

    I have found that taking 250 – 500 mg of magnesium daily prevents leg cramps. I recently told a friend about it since I had been taking mag for years, and now he too does not get leg cramps at night.

  17. PattyPR

    Perhaps that is why quinine in tonic water works! I have used it for years. I don’t like extra sugar in my diet, so I use the sugar free version. Quinine is quite bitter, so tonic water is usually sweetened. I drink 1/2 to 1 cup. The results may be less immediate, not sure. I use it at the first hint my calf muscle may cramp later to prevent suddenly waking during the night with cramps.

    Along with the tonic water, I use one Natra Bio Leg Cramp tablet and four Hyland’s Leg Cramp sublingual (under the tongue) tablets. This has always relieved leg cramps effectively, but probably not as quickly as the mustard. I’ve tried the Ivory Soap method and they actually got worse! I have yet to try mustard.

    You don’t need to go to a liquor store to buy tonic water. It is sold in grocery stores in the liquor. It’s what is used to make a “gin and tonic”, the preferred drink of servicemen who’d been to tropical countries and had contracted malaria. Many discovered It’s leg cramp relieving qualities in their course of treatment for malaria.

  18. Anne

    I wish there was something besides mustard or pickle juice. I know it’s worth it , especially in the throws of bad cramping, but so unpalatable! Why wouldn’t something sour or tart work, based on the scientific explanation?

  19. Judy

    I don’t understand why some people get so angry about remedies they can’t explain scientifically. None of the remedies you discuss are harmful in any way. And it’s not as if science has come up with better remedies. It’s either arrogance or a disturbing lack of imagination to assert that whatever scientists haven’t yet discovered doesn’t exist.

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