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Can Holding Your Breath Stop Painful Foot Cramps?

Can you make painful foot cramps relax by holding your breath? One reader reports this is the remedy that works best in their situation.

Have you often been awakened by painful foot cramps? This is a most unpleasant experience. Some people find that stretching the toes back toward the knee is enough to stop the cramp; they may not even need to get out of bed to accomplish this. Others swallow a spoonful of yellow mustard or a jigger of pickle juice. but some people don’t find that any of these remedies are helpful. One reader offered a unique approach.

What Works for Painful Foot Cramps?

Q. I have suffered from extremely painful foot cramps for most of my adult life. When they occur, it feels as if someone is wringing the bottom of my foot like a towel in two different directions.

I have had a complete neurological workup and the diagnosis was benign foot cramps. The doctor prescribed gabapentin for me to take daily, but it makes me very sleepy. I don’t like to take a daily drug for foot cramps that only occur about twice a month. Soap in the bed does not work. Clonazepam taken at the first sign of the cramp works, but it takes 10 to 20 minutes.

By accident I discovered that if I hold my breath for 30 seconds several times in a row, the foot cramp often goes away. I have to catch it coming on very early. Has this phenomenon ever been reported? Do you have any idea why it might work for painful foot cramps?

Holding Your Breath to Stop Painful Foot Cramps:

A. Many muscle cramps appear to be caused by overactive nerves stimulating the muscles to contract. In your case, these are the muscles in the sole of your foot. The result of such repetitive stimulation is a cramp.

Counterstimulation of sensory neurons that send messages to the spinal cord can often override the hyperactive nerves that were misbehaving. Transient receptor potential (TRP) channels pick up signals from heat, capsaicin, vinegar or certain other products. This seems to be how pickle juice, yellow mustard or the product called HotShot work to reverse cramps quickly (Muscle & Nerve, Sep. 2017). (You can learn more by listening to this interview with Dr. Bruce Bean. It is Show 1054: The Scientific Explanation for a Weird Remedy.)

Pinch Your Lip or Hold Your Breath:

Quite a few readers report that pinching the upper lip can stop a leg or foot cramp. We suspect it may also be working through counterstimulation. Whether or not holding your breath has a similar effect we can’t say, but we thank you for telling us how you counteract those painful foot cramps.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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