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Pickle Juice to the Rescue

Some readers sip pickle juice to treat muscle cramps. It sounds strange, but research supports it as helpful.

Modern medicine is skeptical of most home remedies. It relegates them to the category of anecdotal old wives’ tales. Instead, prescribers prefer FDA-approved medicines that are supported by clinical trials. We too like randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. But sometimes evidence comes in the form of experience, and sometimes experiments vindicate the old wives. That seems to be the case with pickle juice to treat muscle cramps.

How Can You Combat Nighttime Leg Cramps?

Q. Last night I was awakened by the worst pain I have experienced in recent memory. If an enemy asked me to reveal state secrets, I would have gladly done so in exchange for relief from that pain. I think I brought this muscle spasm on by riding my stationary bike before bedtime.

Do you have any remedies to ease nighttime leg cramps? I never want to experience that excruciating pain again!

No Medicines, But Several Remedies:

A. There are no FDA-approved medications to prevent or treat nighttime leg cramps. Once upon a time, people could buy quinine pills over the counter, but the Food and Drug Administration banned that practice. It also warns doctors not to prescribe quinine for anything other than malaria.

That’s why home remedies may be your best bet. Stretching or massaging the tightened muscle often works. If it does not, swallowing a sip of pickle juice or a teaspoonful of yellow mustard usually helps within minutes.

Although coaches have sworn by it for decades, pickle juice seems an improbable remedy. However, scientists have tested this in a randomized trial among a vulnerable population (American Journal of Gastroenterology, June 1, 2022). People with cirrhosis are especially prone to muscle cramps. The investigators compared people sipping pickle juice at the onset of the cramp to people sipping plain tap water.

Those on pickle juice reported that their cramps were far less intense at the end of the month.

If you would like to learn more about pickle juice, mustard and other ways to deal with painful muscle cramps, you may wish to read our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. Keep reading for more information about using pickle juice to treat muscle cramps.

Dill Pickles to Prevent Leg Cramps:

Q. When I spent winter in Arizona, I learned from an older woman to eat a dill pickle every day. That stops leg cramps from occurring.

A. Pickles, or even a sip of pickle juice, can reverse a painful leg cramp. If you are trying to prevent nighttime cramps, you might eat your pickle at supper. Timing might be important, although we do not have studies to determine this.

You will learn about pickles, mustard, tonic water, turmeric, V8 juice and vinegar for muscle cramps in our book The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. Keep reading to learn more about pickle juice to treat muscle cramps.

Coaches Love Pickle Juice to Treat Muscle Cramps:

For years, coaches have kept pickle juice on hand for players who might experience leg cramps during a workout or game. No doubt this remedy is regarded as improbable by some medical personnel. However, exercise physiologists have done studies to see whether pickle juice to treat muscle cramps really works. What they found is that the old wives were right!

A study by scientists at the University of Michigan, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Harvard Medical School was published in the respected American Journal of Gastroenterology (April 13, 2022).  The researchers enrolled 82 patients with liver disease that caused them frequent painful muscle cramps.

These individuals were told to sip the study liquid when a cramp began. A random process determined who got pickle juice and who got tap water. The patients also rated the severity of their cramps. By the end of the month, 74 people had completed the study. Those sipping pickle brine had significantly less pain from their cramps than those assigned to sip tap water.

Previous Studies of Pickle Juice to Treat Muscle Cramps:

This is not the first study to find that pickle juice could ease muscle cramps. In one, college students experienced cramps in their big toes triggered by electrical stimulation (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 2010).  Those who got pickle juice had a significantly shorter cramp time than those ingesting water.

The scientists could find no evidence of any change in body fluids or electrolytes rapid enough to explain the benefit. In a separate study, researchers looked for changes in sodium or potassium concentrations (Journal of Athletic Training, May-June 2014). They found no changes in plasma levels within an hour of ingestion, although the cramps disappeared within minutes.

Does Pickle Juice Work Through Transient Receptor Potential Channels?

Increasingly, investigators have turned to transient receptor potential (TRP) channels for an explanation of how pickle juice might work. One research group recruited 39 individuals and induced muscle cramps in the triceps to test a potion that activates TRP channels (Muscle & Nerve, Sep. 2017). The product, containing cinnamon and capsaicin, made people more resistant to cramps, reduced the duration of the cramp and resulted in less post-cramp muscle soreness.

Such TRP triggers can result in a higher cramp threshold frequency, making people less susceptible to muscle cramps (European Journal of Applied Physiology, Aug. 2017). We suspect pickle juice and olive brine activate TRP channels. If they do, that could help explain why many readers have found them helpful.

People Who Use Pickle Juice to Treat Muscle Cramps:

Most readers don’t really care why a home remedy works. What matters to them is that it does.

Here is just one example:

“I would like to comment on pickle juice for leg cramps. I live in a retirement home and asked the kitchen what they did with leftover pickle juice. ‘Throw it away,’ they said.

“Now they save it for me. I have about three medicinal sips before bed and seldom have a leg cramp!”

Pickle juice for an emergency:

“I experienced leg cramps that started in my toes and went up almost to my diaphragm. I tried sublingual homeopathic tablets without success.

“My son, a handball player, told me the professional handball players use pickle juice for cramps. I tried it when I was ready to call 911. (The pain under my diaphragm made it hard to breathe.)

“The pickle juice worked almost instantaneously. I now keep a bottle of it in my refrigerator at all times in case of an emergency.”

If you would like to learn more about pickle juice and other unusual treatments for leg cramps, you could read our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies.

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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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