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The Best Soap Story Ever!

We've heard from many people that they get relief from night-time cramps by slipping a bar of soap under their bed sheets. Why are skeptics so angry?

We do not know why so many health professionals are offended by home remedies in general and soap in particular. The idea that putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet of the bed to combat leg cramps makes some physicians absolutely furious. They are convinced this home remedy is equivalent to snake oil because they have no explanation for it. That’s despite the fact that there is currently no FDA-approved drug or treatment for nighttime leg cramps.

Soap is cheap and as far as we can tell has few, if any, side effects. We have heard from so many people that soap is effective that we do not believe this is a placebo effect. We even have some possible explanations for how it might work.

Soap Stories from Readers:

Irish Spring to the End:

Q. Years ago, I read your article about using soap to relieve night cramps. I insisted that my husband try this cure, since it did not cost anything and would be easy. We had a cake of Irish Spring soap in the cabinet.

He tried it successfully for five nights. The morning after the sixth night, he said that he knew the benefits would not last. He’d had cramps the night before. When I made the bed that day, I found the soap on the floor.

From that day until the day he died, even in hospice, he kept a cake of Irish Spring in his bed. Can I get a copy of that article?

Nobel Prize Research May Offer Explanation:

A. We have written so many articles about soap under the bottom sheet to prevent nighttime leg cramps that we don’t know which one you read. Perhaps it was this one, this one or maybe this one.

Soap seems like an improbable remedy for muscle cramps. Nevertheless, we think we have found a possible explanation. The fragrance in some of the most popular brands of soap contains limonene from lemons and limes. This ingredient can activate specialized ion channels in nerve cells called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels.

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 2021 was awarded to the researchers, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who discovered these sensors that alert us to heat, pressure and cold. We think TRP channels may explain a number of home remedies, including soap against muscle cramps. You can learn more about the scientific explanations behind many popular treatments in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. If you prefer listening, you can get a very good idea of the explanation in our interview with Dr. Bruce Bean. It is Show 1054: The Scientific Explanation for a Weird Remedy.

Alleviating Terrible Nighttime Cramps with Soap:

Q. I have been living with ever-worsening pain in my legs. At night, the cramps are so severe cramps that I get anxious just thinking about going to bed. The chances are good that I will wake up screaming.

It got worse about 9 months ago when I began waking up with my left leg achy, stiff and feeling extremely swollen, although it wasn’t swollen at all. The discomfort persisted all day long, not just at nighttime, and it affected my mobility severely.

I got advice of all kinds — take more calcium, magnesium and potassium. Take quinine. Exercise before bed. Don’t exercise before bedtime. My doctor wanted to do a MRI for pinched nerves and then put me on Lyrica. Nothing worked, and the MRI showed nothing!

Is Soap Under the Sheets a Placebo?

Then last week my sister-in-law told me about putting soap under the sheets. At any other time I would have told her to cut back on the sauce. But I was in such discomfort and so depressed about how it was limiting my activities that I decided to try it. What did I have to lose?

Well, after the first night the pain went away and the swollen feeling and stiffness decreased dramatically. No cramps! After one week I’m able to sleep comfortably and walk normally. The pain is hardly present.

My husband feels it’s all a placebo effect but I know differently. As to the so-called scientific community, here’s my challenge: Instead of scoffing at how unscientific this treatment is, these PhDs should be lining up six deep to research it.

Today’s science fiction often becomes tomorrow’s scientific “discovery.” Science is not limited to the known; it’s not static. On the contrary, a large part of science is that questioning curiosity about why something appears to be working when it shouldn’t — the inquisitiveness that makes a doctor a good scientist. Think outside the box, Mr. Doctor of Biomedical Engineering and Physics — prove us all wrong! I dare you!

Scientific Support for Soap:

A. Thank you for sharing such a compelling story. We actually think that there may be an explanation for the soap trick. Here are some links and some science to support this approach to easing leg cramps.

Even if there was not a proposed mechanism to explain the power of soap against nighttime leg cramps, we think there is enough testimonial evidence to suggest that something is going on. What’s more soap is inexpensive, and as far as we can tell, there are no side effects to putting a bar under the bottom sheet or putting some soap chips in your socks or in your pocket.

More Soap Stories:

Mary shared a common story. She forgot her soap and paid a price:

“I recently moved and did not take along the small bars of soap from the old location.

“That night I had almost continuous cramps. I made sure I found SOME soap to put down. Different types also work differently.

“It did not stop them completely yet greatly reduced the cramps.”

Skeptics often like to point to randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that allow the FDA to approve prescription drugs. Surprisingly, many of those medicines work through mechanisms that have not yet been explained. So, drugs work, but we don’t always know why.

Here is a powerful example of just such a critic. REM from Jersey states:

“These anecdotal reports of soap helping with leg cramps have been a staple with Peoples Pharmacy for years, and every time the matter is discussed, PP continues the controversy by repeating the unverified stories of success, and never mentioning any stories of failure.

“What would it take to do a double-blind test of 20 people with leg cramps to prove or disprove these claims? Why have there been no tests in medical schools, colleges, assisted living facilities, etc.? PP seems to have a vested interest in promoting unproven “natural” solutions to valid medical problems, when it should be promoting responsible and reliable testing of anecdotal claims.

“If soap works, why wouldn’t physicians prescribe it for their patients? If soap works, why wouldn’t soap companies promote their products as a remedy for leg cramps and develop even better forms of soap for medicinal use? Have there actually been any valid double blind tests of soap that we can read about?”

JBG from Illinois offers a fascinating response to REM:

“One commenter berates People’s Pharmacy for not conducting double-blind tests about the effectiveness of soap-under-the-sheet for dealing with leg cramps. I think that criticism is off the mark.

“Two of the reported cases [at this link] relate to people who found the soap helpful at first, and then not, because the soap had gotten removed from under the sheet. In one of the cases, the person with the cramp didn’t even know about the soap, but was helped when it was present and not when it was absent.

“Notice that both cases were double-blind and placebo-controlled. True, the person who placed the soap in each case knew it was there, but they did NOT know when it was removed, causing “failure” of the (now absent) treatment. That is, each situation was double-blind because neither the “experimenter” nor the “subject” knew when the soap was removed, but the expected “failure” occurred anyway. Also, each subject provided his own control, since everything was the same when the treatment worked and when it didn’t, except for the presence of the soap.

How Would You Study the Effect of Soap Against Leg Cramps?

“The notion of needing twenty (or some other number) people to settle the question statistically is a misunderstanding. The treatment is reliable in individuals. As the cases are reported, when it works, there is no question about it. Of course, the treatment is not reported to work for everyone who tries it. That leaves a question, For what proportion of the population with a leg cramp problem does the soap-under-the-sheets treatment work? That’s an interesting question, but it’s an entirely different question from, Does the treatment work for some people? Unless we choose to simply dismiss a slew of independent reports, the answer to the latter question is both definite and positive.

We would be the first to admit that soap under the bottom sheet does NOT work for everyone. We wonder if REM realizes that most drugs do NOT work for everyone. In fact, most drugs work for a surprisingly small number of people. The FDA often approves a medication that  barely works better than placebo. Find that hard to believe? Here is a link to a blog post (“Billion Dollar Drugs are Dramatically Disappointing”) on this very topic.

Early Soap Stories:

Years ago, when we had only recently heard about the idea of putting soap under the bottom sheet, we received a question and a story you might enjoy.

Don’t Forget the Soap!

Q. A very distressed sufferer of leg cramps wrote to you for advice. I was surprised that you did not suggest placing a bar of soap under the sheet, as you have information citing this ‘cure’ on your website.

I too was suffering nightly from excruciating leg cramps. My husband read of this inexplicable soap cure on your website and, desperate for relief, we decided to try it. After years of not being able to go a single night without cramps, I have been episode-free ever since I first placed the soap under the sheet three months ago. I replace it with a fresh bar each month.

Initially, I was quite curious as to how a simple bar of soap could bring such pain relief. At this point, though, I am no longer concerned as to how or why this works, I am just grateful and relieved that it does.

A. Thank you for reminding everyone of this simple and safe approach to preventing leg cramps. We too have tried it and found it helpful.

Where Do You Put Soap for Leg Cramps at Night?

Q. I have bad leg cramps that wake me up early in the morning. I read that a bar of soap placed between the sheets might help.

Where precisely do you place it? I can’t take quinine because it interacts with tamoxifen I take to prevent a recurrence of breast cancer. The cramps are really painful.

A. Quinine is no longer available as a treatment for leg cramps, even if you weren’t on tamoxifen. The FDA banned its use for cramps a few years ago.

Although we are hard-pressed to explain why soap under the bottom sheet would be helpful against leg cramps, many readers insist that it works.

Here is just one example:

“I have been keeping a bar of soap under my sheet for quite some time. It does work, but I was never sure it did.

“Last night I had toe cramps. Instead of getting up to walk them off, I curled my foot as close to the soap as possible. The cramps went away in about 5 seconds.

“At the same time the calf in my other leg cramped. Again I moved the soap around near my leg, and the cramp was gone. Weird? You bet. Would I change this? No way. Who knows how this works, but it does.”

The Case for Home Remedies:

Home remedies are often inexpensive and far less likely to cause complications but they are also less well studied. If you are interested in other simple and affordable approaches to common ailments, you may find our book from National Geographic of great interest. Look for The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.

Should you be interested in Bed Soap from The People’s Pharmacy…here is a link.

Share your own soap story below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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