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Why Does Mustard Relieve Muscle Cramps?

Have you ever wondered how could mustard relieve muscle cramps? We have a probable explanation that works through nerves and their receptors.
Why Does Mustard Relieve Muscle Cramps?
Spoon removing grainy dijon mustard from glass jar

If you get nighttime leg cramps, you know how painful they can be. Whether it is your calf, your thigh or even the arch of your foot, you might jump out of bed yelling. You could stretch the offending muscle, hoping that it will relax. Or instead, you might swallow a teaspoonful of yellow mustard for quick relief. How does mustard relieve muscle cramps?

Will Dijon Mustard Relieve Muscle Cramps?

Q. You frequently mention yellow mustard (as well as pickle juice) as a possible remedy for muscle cramps. Is there something about yellow mustard in particular that seems to make it work, or would brown or spicy or coarse ground or country Dijon or honey mustard work as well?

A. There have been no scientific studies of any type of mustard to relieve muscle cramps. Hence, there is no way to judge whether Dijon mustard is better or worse than cheap yellow mustard.

We suspect that mustard works through the same mechanism as pickle juice, olive juice, vinegar, cinnamon or cayenne pepper. Mustard oils contain isothiocyanates that activate transient receptor potential (TRP) channels in sensory nerves in the skin, mouth, throat and stomach (Jordt et al, Nature, Jan. 15, 2004).  Stimulating these nerves sends out a signal that overrides the inappropriate hyperactivity of nerves causing muscle cramps (Craighead et al, Muscle & Nerve, Sept. 2017).

Can You Use Plain Yellow Mustard for Cramps?

Another reader didn’t tell us the exact variety of mustard that works, but affirmed that mustard relieves muscle cramps:

Q. I’ve gotten muscle cramps, in my shins of all places, for at least 20 years. I tried every remedy without success until I heard about mustard on your show. Voilà!

A. There is growing evidence, as we mentioned above, that strong flavors such as vinegar, capsaicin (the essence of hot peppers), ginger and mustard can activate special sensors in the mouth, throat and stomach (Journal of Applied Physiology, Aug. 1, 2018). These transient receptor potential (TRP) channels can interrupt the muscle spasm. 

Some scientists suggest that recurrent or systemic muscle cramps may result from electrolyte imbalance (Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, Oct. 2020). Other research will be needed before anyone can confirm this hypothesis or rule it out. We have heard, however, from some readers who report that magnesium supplements or Pedialyte drinks help control nighttime cramps.

Learn More:

How could hot sauce or mustard relieve muscle cramps? The explanation of TRP channels and how they work, along with more about the science behind other home remedies, is in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. You might also want to listen to Dr. Bruce Bean explain why and how he and his friend Dr. Rod McKinnon studied up on muscle cramps and how to relieve them. It is Show 1054: The Scientific Explanation for a Weird Remedy.

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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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Citations
  • Jordt S-E et al, "Mustard oils and cannabinoids excite sensory nerve fibres through the TRP channel ANKTM1." Nature, Jan. 15, 2004. DOI: 10.1038/nature02282
  • Craighead DH et al, "Ingestion of transient receptor potential channel agonists attenuates exercise-induced muscle cramps." Muscle & Nerve, Sept. 2017. DOI: 10.1002/mus.25611
  • Vianna LC et al, "Capsaicin-based analgesic balm attenuates the skeletal muscle metaboreflex in healthy humans." Journal of Applied Physiology, Aug. 1, 2018. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00038.2018
  • Troyer W et al, "Exercise-Associated muscle cramps in the tennis player." Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, Oct. 2020. DOI: 10.1007/s12178-020-09662-8
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