The People's Perspective on Medicine

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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To ease a cramp, I find if I tickle the roof of my mouth I get almost instant relief. Happy to share.

Homeopathic remedies work for me. Can’t mention brand names, check it out online.

If I wake up with foot or leg cramps, I drink about 8 ounces of water and they go away. I think I am cramping because I am dehydrated as they are more likely to occur in the hotter months after a day of exercise.

My name is Vince L. . I began to have leg cramps after a quadruple bypass surgery over 2 years ago. No one could explain. I continue to have the cramps and have tried all remedies stated. Pinching the upper lip does stop them somewhat but I can notwalk around all day pinching my lip all day or night long. I am going to try holding my breath for a count of eight and release for a count of eight for 4 times.
Has any one had a similar problem after heart surgery? I also have sciatica problems. This to started after heart surgery. I have begun P T for this issue. I am told that it can be cured completely. I do not have any back issues just the legs from the waist down. for me it is an enigma. Doctors can not explain the problem coming on after surgery. Has anyone else experienced a similar problem?

If you have a good chiropractor (some are not good) in the area, many times they can do wonders for sciatica pain. Can’t answer why this happened after your surgery but perhaps a nerve was somehow pinched when they closed you up. Good luck in getting relief from your pain.

Since the brand name of the apple cider vinegar was deleted from my post (sorry about that!), I have to mention any brand will work, but it has to have “the mother” in it. It will say that on the label.

I’ve always been taught to BREATHE through cramps.

I have tried all of these suggested remedies. Vitamin B12 seems to work for me.

Thanks to a reader on People’s Pharmacy I have completely solved this problem. Keep a large glass of water by your bed. Drink it as fast as possible as soon as the cramps start. You might need two glasses to completely stop the cramping. I have had this problem all my life but I now have a very quick fix. Taking a half glass of gatorade before bed seems to keep it from happening but sometimes I forget.

For a couple of years, I was awakened each night with calf muscle and foot cramps. Getting out of bed always relieved them immediately. I found that taking one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, mixed with about 1/4 cup of juice before bedtime has almost completely eliminated the nightly cramps. I have been doing this for 6 months now, and what a relief it is!

I listened to your podcast a few years ago, with Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, N.D. Her book, “The Magnesium Miracle,” is fascinating! No one gets enough Magnesium in their diet, alone. I passed the word on to friends and acquaintances who complained of frequent leg spasms. All found a benefit. I had a foot spasm at work, years ago. A doctor I was working with said to raise my big toe as far up as I could. It worked within a few seconds.

Pickle juice or mustard result in nasty heartburn, and soap, so far, isn’t helping. So maybe holding my breath will work. I usually keep a gel pack next to my microwave at night, and if I get a cramp I hobble to the kitchen (next room) and heat the gel pack for about 50 seconds and rub it over the cramp. That stops the cramp in just a minute or two if I walk around a bit.

My cramps, I think, are caused by the weight of bedding on my feet. Or at least that seems to be part of the problem. And it’s always toward morning, when I’m dreaming. Doctors don’t know what might be the cause, but the cramps began when I took Nexium years ago. I had to stop Nexium because it, and all other prescription heartburn meds, caused a serious heart arrhythmia. My doctor says quite a few people are getting heart arrhythmias now, probably because the meds keep our bodies from producing enough magnesium. I think he’s on to something.

I have found that drinking a small amount of tonic with quinine, just a few gulps, every morning, prevents the muscle cramping.

I occasionally have excruciating pains in the arch of my foot. I find excellent relief by using alpha lipoic acid supplements.

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