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 painful 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. Years later, we found the scientific explanation that was unknown when we first heard of this remedy.
Trying to Explain Mustard for Cramps:
We recently heard from a reader who has found that nighttime leg cramps go away quickly after swallowing a teaspoon of mustard. Here’s the story and our response. Keep reading for other reader’s reactions.
Q. While I was on a cross-country ski trip some years back, I had painful leg cramps at night. Another skier suggested that I take a teaspoon of yellow mustard followed by clear water. This worked like magic and the pain was gone within 10 minutes.
A. Yellow mustard likely stimulates TRP (transient receptor potential) channels in the mouth. We suspect this is how mustard reverses muscle cramps. Whether the action is due to the mustard, the vinegar or the turmeric that gives mustard its yellow color, we don’t know. It might be all three. Research conducted on rats shows that TRPM8 receptors respond to vinegar (Neurourology and Urodynamics, June 2018). Turmeric compounds affect TRPM2 receptors (Molecular Membrane Biology, May-Aug. 2016).
A few years ago, we heard from a person whose father used 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.
Finding a Substitute for Mustard for Cramps:
Q. I spent all day yesterday moving furniture and heavy boxes, so by bedtime I fell asleep exhausted. In the middle of the night, I woke with a massive cramp in my right leg, starting with the foot and moving all the way up to the knee, on both the front and back of the leg. It was much more than a standard charley horse!
I tried to stretch it, but nothing would move. So I limped to the kitchen for a spoonful of yellow mustard. The refrigerator shelf was empty! I had pitched the past-date bottle two weeks ago and not replaced it.
I keep mustard powder in the pantry, so I mixed up a spoonful with vinegar and Tabasco sauce. It certainly tasted vile, but within two minutes my leg relaxed, and I slept the rest of the night without a problem. The muscles weren’t even sore when I woke up. Tell me again why this worked.
A. Muscle cramps associated with unaccustomed exertion seem to be caused by a glitch in the connection between neurons and muscles. Transient receptor potential (TRP) channels in nerves can override and correct that misfiring when they are activated.
Your concoction contained three different compounds that can trigger TRP channels: vinegar, mustard and capsaicin from the Tabasco. Congratulations on coming up with an innovative mixture to take care of the crisis.
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 reader’s 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, Nobel Prize winner, Rod MacKinnon, MD, and his colleague Bruce Bean, PhD, 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.” You can learn more about the science behind mustard for muscle cramps and other home treatments for common problems in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies.
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. Nine or ten years ago, I read about it in your column. 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.”
Do You Like 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. These approaches can often help what ails you, even if we cannot explain why they work.