The People's Perspective on Medicine

Leg Pain

Imagine this: You’re sleeping peacefully, with not a care in the world. Then, like a bolt of lightning, you are wide awake and in excruciating pain. A muscle in your leg is contracting so strongly that it wakes you out of a sound sleep. To ease the pain, you need the muscle to relax. But coaxing a muscle to let go can be tricky. If such sudden nighttime leg pains occur frequently, they can wreak havoc with your rest. And that can have negative consequences for your overall health.

“When I get severe leg cramps, my calf muscle becomes hard as a rock. The pain is so severe that I panic until I can stop it. It’s rather like being asleep and getting woken up with a hammer blow to the thumb.

I tried massaging my calf. That didn’t work. The pain doesn’t quit until I can flex my calf muscle. During a leg cramp, my foot is in a position as if I had on high heels. Forcing the foot into a more normal position by pushing the toes and heel onto the floor usually stops the pain. This hurts, but it works.

Every time I have gotten this kind of cramp it was because I was dehydrated. Any sports trainer will tell you that cramps are a sign of dehydration.”

Although dehydration may lead to mineral imbalances that could contribute to muscle spasms, doctors don’t always know why some people develop nighttime leg cramps. They often don’t have good treatments, either. Many physicians prescribe quinine, a natural medicine derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. It has been used for centuries to treat fevers, especially those due to malaria. While this drug can be effective against leg cramps, there are a number of potentially serious side effects associated with quinine. They include ringing in the ears, rash, and, rarely, liver damage or life-threatening anemia.

Consequently, it makes sense to try home remedies or dietary supplements first to see if they work. That’s true even though some of the home remedies may seem a little strange. What works like a charm for one person may be totally worthless for someone else. This is truly a case of trial and error.

Health care professionals generally consider leg cramps more of a nuisance than a serious health problem. Nonetheless, anyone who suffers from nighttime leg cramps knows that they can disrupt sleep, and that can eventually have consequences for health as well as mood. Finding the remedy that suits you best may require some trial and error. Don’t be afraid of the home remedies: They may seem silly, but since the only prescription treatment, -quinine, can have such serious adverse effects, we think they are worth considering.

“I had terrible leg cramps, and nothing helped. Then my husband got some liquid calcium, and that worked immediately. I have not had another leg cramp.

He decided to try mustard for leg cramps, but he still had leg cramps and really did not savor the mustard. He decided to try turmeric, an ingredient in mustard. He took 1/2 teaspoon at bedtime and 1/2 teaspoon at breakfast. BINGO! This worked great. Not only did it cure his leg cramps, but it also eased the pain in his hip and feet.

He recommended I try it for my awful foot problems. It felt like an ice pick was stuck in the ball of my foot. As soon as I started taking the turmeric, I had no more pain. I can now wear my lovely high-heeled shoes on Sunday without suffering.”

  • Tuck a bar of ordinary soap under the bottom sheet when you make the bed. It should be near your legs, and may need to be replaced every 6 weeks or so. We don’t know why it would prevent leg cramps, but many readers report success–and we know of no side effects.
  • Swallow a teaspoonful of yellow mustard–the inexpensive kind sometimes dispensed in individual packets. We think it may be the turmeric in the mustard that helps. This remedy can work very quickly, though some readers have reported heartburn as a result.
  • Sip about an ounce of pickle juice. Some pickles may contain turmeric, so perhaps that explains why this helps some people fight off muscle cramps so quickly. Or, it may provide some missing minerals. Pickle juice is high in sodium, so this home remedy is not for anyone on a low-sodium diet.
  • Baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon in 8 ounces of water, is reputed to fight painful leg cramps quickly. Baking soda contains sodium, so it is not for anyone on a low-salt regimen.
  • Pinch your upper lip firmly between your thumb and forefinger until the cramp eases. This may have the effect of providing a distracting pain that is under your control. Many readers claim it is helpful, although we have not been impressed.
  • Stretch leg muscles for several minutes before bedtime.
  • Consume plenty of potassium-rich vegetables, especially low-sodium V8 juice. Increasing potassium intake seems to help prevent leg cramps.
  • Take a supplement of 300 to 500 milligrams of magnesium a day. Reduce the dose if this gives you diarrhea. Avoid magnesium if you have kidney disease.
  • Try 4 ounces of Pedialyte after vigorous exercise to replenish minerals and prevent muscle cramps.
  • Consider B-complex vitamins to prevent cramps. Keep the dose of vitamin B6 under 100 milligrams per day to avoid nerve damage.
  • Ask your doctor about quinine. It is available by prescription (or at low doses in some brands of tonic water). Severe side effects are uncommon but may be life-threatening, especially a blood disorder called ITP.
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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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I find a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in a couple of inches of water works quickly to relieve the cramps that start in my heart area. As I don’t like the taste I use my soda stream to aerate the water first. Seems to work instantly for me. This was after years of taking quinine.

I occasionally get cramps in calf of leg if I stretch it in bed, a friend told me get out of bed immediately and put feet on floor, wet tip of finger and rub behind knees! I thought at the time it was the most ridiculous suggestion, but it works brilliantly.

I have leg pain as soon as I try to sleep….it’s not cramping ….its PAIN…..I will try the mustard trick to see if that helps…..I am miserable because I can’t get a good sleep

I read the article on turmeric. It says to take 1/2 teaspoon morning and night. How do you take it and where can I find turmeric? I would like to know. I suffer from leg cramps and they done allow me to get a good nights sleep. I wake up with bolts of lighting shooting my calves…

My ballet teacher taught me a remedy for leg cramps, and it has always worked for me. If you have a sudden cramp in the middle of the night, get out of bed, lean forward with hands pressed to the wall, and stretch the leg until the muscles are completely stretched out. It gets rid of the cramp immediately. Also, eating bananas helps prevent the cramps in the first place.

I started suffering from leg cramps when I was pregnant and had them sporadically after until a friend suggested I put a bar of soap under my sheet where my legs are and it has stopped the problem. It doesn’t help the cramps in my hands but my legs and feet are fine. I use Dove soap. My doctor said it was suppose to be Ivory per legend but I don’t think it makes any difference what kind of soap you use.

Hah! Nothing makes my night time or day time cramps worse than fruit, especially bananas or citrus! Everyone is different.

When I feel a cramp coming, I can usually tell how/which way my muscle is contracting. I immediately stretch my leg it in the opposite way (usually pointing my foot with my toes upward), and it never develops into a painful cramp. I found this out by “accident.” I often experiment and try different things, “listening” to my body and this is one of the findings, which helps me greatly. I found out one tip against overeating, which may help some to lose weight, but this is for another topic! :)

I had read that drinking a little plckle juice when you have a leg cramp will make it go away in about 10 mins. My cramping was horrible so I wondered if eating a few slices of hamburger dills, at bedtime, would prevent them from happening at all. I tried it and it WORKS for me. I haven’t had a leg cramp since I started this routine.

I’ve tried bar of soap, pickle juice and an over the counter product to prevent painful leg cramps. What actually works is that I wear leg warmers to bed. I am very happy to go to bed without dreading painful leg cramps.

Pickle juice, olive juice both help me. I think the salt in these juices is the active ingredient that helps because plain table salt works as well as these brines do.

I have been experiencing nausea and extreme tiredness for weeks. I have used tonic water at night when I have leg cramps. I also have a prescription I use sometimes called Hydroxchlorquine. I was feeling better last night when I went to bed but had my usual leg cramps. I drank some of the tonic water and immediately felt real sick and nauseous. Could the Tonic water be causing my problem?

I used to get very bad leg cramps or Charlie Horses, in my legs at night. Someone told me to drink some dill pickle juice and it would go away. I tried it and it worked in about 10 min. maybe less. I used to just drink about 4 swallows out of the pickle jar. Now, I have friends that bring me their extra dill pickle juice. I am so thankful that it goes away so soon.

My legs are numb and painful; I have trouble walking and use a walker. I am on hydrocodone every six hours. It is not very much help. DP

The salt (sodium) in the pickle juice is the active ingredient. Salt water or baking soda water do the same thing for me as they both contain lots of sodium. I also find it helpful to take calcium and iron supplements & to avoid fruits or sweets in the evening.

So far that only thing that works for me is mustard, one or two teaspoons. It takes at least 5 minutes, but it stops the pain.

When I am awakened in the middle of the night with a sharp and excruciatingly painful leg cramp (usually of gracilis, a long small muscle that runs down the inner thigh), my partner quickly gets me a big glass of water which I immediately gulp. She then wraps my thigh very tightly with an Ace bandage, and then she puts a heating pad over my leg. The combination of water ingestion, compression, and heat causes the cramp to subside relatively quickly.
I suspect that the underlying cause of my leg cramps is dehydration, as this typically happens when I’ve not replaced water adequately after sweating and/or I simply have not drunk much water during the day. I drink coffee and milk, but very little water. I literally have to force myself to drink more water and other fluids.

I frequently get cramp in my feet at night but today while walking around a store I got the cramp in both feet. Any suggestions what could be the cause and what I could do for them?

Try adding a little unrefined salt to the water and I’ll bet it works even better. Athletes have long used salt with water to prevent & stop muscle cramping. The extra salt will actually help your body hold on to the water you drink.

I, too, suffer from leg cramps. They may be in my foot, calf, the front of my leg, and even the side. I found a wonderful product that stops them for me. It is “Back and Neck Rescue”. It is made by a company named Peaceful Mountain in Boulder, CO. The listed ingredients are: St John’s Wort, anica, white willow, yarrow, comfrey, lavender, aloe. It is a gel and is not sticky or greasy. I rub it on the affected area. If I use it before I go to bed I do not get cramps.
It also stopped the sharp pain I had in my foot, caused by a nuroma.
It seems to help me anywhere inflammation might be involved.

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