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How Does Soap Soothe Cramps?

Sometimes we come across a home remedy that seems so preposterous it hardly deserves a second thought. That happened to us nearly a decade ago when readers of this column started telling us that they were putting soap under the bed sheet to prevent nighttime leg cramps.

One reader was very cautious about trying this approach:

“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.”

Over the years we have heard from hundreds of people who have been astonished that this simple remedy helped ease a chronic problem for which there was no other treatment. Others were skeptical, suggesting that any benefits were due to the placebo effect.

Because the soap story seems so implausible, many doctors scoff. So do some readers:

“You folks are ridiculous, superstitious and ignorant. How can you recommend a bar of soap under the bottom sheet for leg cramps? It’s just plain dumb. Please spare us such silliness.”

Others started wondering whether there might be a plausible explanation for this phenomenon. A chemist at North Carolina State University analyzed the outgassing of several brands of soap mentioned frequently in our reader testimonials. He discovered a volatile compound used as a fragrance common to the most popular soaps.

An anesthesiologist was intrigued enough by soap testimonials to conduct some experiments using crushed Ivory soap. Dr. Yon

Doo Ough and his colleagues placed their homemade skin patches over muscle cramps and found that the pain was relieved (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July, 2008).

Dr. Ough speculated that the scent of the soap was responsible for the benefit. He tested soap-scented oil (SSO) in a skin patch for the relief of fibromyalgia pain. He reported:

“It was found that the SSO skin patch consistently and adequately relieved muscular pain” (Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, Sept. 2008).

Although most people associate the soap remedy with nighttime leg cramps, Dr. Ough reports that a soap skin patch helps with muscle spasms such as menstrual cramps or intestinal cramps. We have even heard from people who find that holding a bar of soap is an effective way to banish hand cramps:

“I am prone to very painful hand and finger cramps. When they strike, I massage them or run hot and cold water over the hands, but nothing works but time.

“Today my left hand was in terrible pain that wouldn’t cease. I went to the Internet and looked up Home Remedies for Hand Cramps. I saw the suggestion on your website, PeoplesPharmacy.com, about holding a bar of soap and immediately opened a new bar. When I held it in my aching hand, POOF — the pain went away within seconds. It seemed like a miracle.”

Until Dr. Ough’s imaginative research there was no explanation for this effect. Now we have some science to suggest how the soap might be working to ease muscle cramps and pain. The herbal oils in the soap scent may have antispasmodic action. We don’t know of a more affordable remedy for such common problems.

We suspect that many different kinds of soaps (except the fragrance-free) would benefit those afflicted with nighttime leg cramps. We have, however, created a flat bar that is less disruptive to sleep. You’ll find it in our store listed as Bed Soap, and that is how it is intended to be used. Of course, once the aroma has dwindled, it is good in the shower or bath as well.

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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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