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Pickle juice stops muscle cramps

April 21st, 2010

No, really, this is a serious blog entry. There’s an article in the May issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by researchers at Brigham Young University called “Reflex Inhibition of Electrically Induced Muscle Cramps in Hypohydrated Humans,” and that’s what it says:

The most significant and novel observation of this study was that ingesting small volumes (73.9 +/- 2.7 mL) of pickle juice alleviated electrically induced muscle cramps in mildly hypohydrated (3%) humans. Pickle juice required approximately 85 s to alleviate muscle cramps (cramp duration after ingestion ranged from 12 to 219 s). Although this was much longer than the purported claims of pickle juiceā€™s efficacy, it still relieved a cramp 45% (85 vs 153 s) faster than when no fluid was consumed. In contrast, ingesting similar volumes of deionized water had no therapeutic effect on cramp duration (cramp duration after ingestion ranged from 71 to 246 s).

What’s interesting about this is not so much the promise of a “cure” for muscle cramps. (There are some reasons to think that downing a bunch of vinegar and salt probably isn’t a great habit, for one thing.) Instead, it’s how it stops cramps that is intriguing and suggests that conventional thinking on cramps may be mistaken.

The pickle juice cure has been around for at least a decade (it was described in a 2000 article in the Journal of Athletic Training), and most people assumed that it had something to do with all the electrolytes. But the authors of this new study aren’t convinced. First of all, the amount of electrolyte in 73 mL of pickle juice has a negligible effect on concentrations in the body. Second, the 85 seconds it took (on average) to relieve the cramps is far too short for the pickle juice to exit the stomach, be absorbed by the small intestines, and reach the relevant part of the body. Earlier studies have found that it takes at least 30 minutes for small volumes of pickle juice to leave the stomach.

Instead, the researchers suggest that the pickle juice acts on neural reflexes — a plausible suggestion, given that earlier experiments have found that vinegar can provoke reflexes and affect neurotransmitter levels. This fits with an alternate theory that cramps have nothing to do with dehydration or electrolyte loss, first proposed in the 1990s by Martin Schwellnus of the University of Cape Town:

Schwellnus et al. proposed that [cramps] were due to neuromuscular fatigue. Neuromuscular fatigue is thought to create an imbalance between muscle spindle and Golgi tendon organ activity, resulting in increased alpha motor neuron excitability. Thus, if [cramps] are caused by an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory stimuli at the alpha motor neuron pool, pickle juice ingestion may cause an increase in inhibition from supraspinal sources, thereby resulting in cramp alleviation.

If you’re interested in the details of Schwellnus’s theory and the controversies surrounding muscle cramps, the Science of Sport blog did a good series on it back in 2007 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). It’s interesting stuff — and now, courtesy of pickle juice, there’s some new evidence.

  1. April 22nd, 2010 at 19:17 | #1

    Fantastic article on pickle juice! This is really going to help our cause. The American Diabetes Association has asked us to sponsor them in their upcoming Tour De Cure by handing out thousands of pickle juice ice pops to the riders for this very reason. It certainly helps the pickle juice lowers blood sugar levels up to 42% as well. http://bit.ly/JOXyp

  2. August 31st, 2011 at 19:13 | #2

    thanks for the article and links. I used this cure for my Ironman #5 and it was the first time I ran the marathon cramp free. It was nothing short of miraculous.

  3. January 24th, 2012 at 20:36 | #3

    @Steve Sellers

    Steve, can you tell me how long before you started your Ironman competition that you drank the juice and if you drank it during you competition? I do crossfit, I get abdominal cramps, always have. Have tried everything but pickle juice. I need something to work. Can you tell me specifics of how you took the pickle juice?

    Thank you!

  4. Virgnia Corbett
    July 26th, 2012 at 13:39 | #4

    I have Multiple Sclerosis and one of my more bothersome symptoms are severe muscle spasms in my left leg. They can happen pretty much anywhere down the leg from my hip to my toes…but most often in my foot, ankle, calf and the muscle that goes down the front of the leg. At times the spasms are debilitating and the resulting muscle soreness can last for days. Reently I learned about pickle juice as a possible remedy. I found it a bit hard to believe at first, but I have tried it now, and swear, it works better than anything else I have tried over the years. When I feel the spasm taking hold I take a few gulps of dill piclkle juice and the spasms quickly subside! And most often they do not return. If they do, another shot of pickle juice does the trick! I now keep pickle juice in the fridge at all times!

  5. Virgnia Corbett
    July 26th, 2012 at 13:39 | #5

    I have Multiple Sclerosis and one of my more bothersome symptoms are severe muscle spasms in my left leg. They can happen pretty much anywhere down the leg from my hip to my toes…but most often in my foot, ankle, calf and the muscle that goes down the front of the leg. At times the spasms are debilitating and the resulting muscle soreness can last for days. Reently I learned about pickle juice as a possible remedy. I found it a bit hard to believe at first, but I have tried it now, and swear, it works better than anything else I have tried over the years. When I feel the spasm taking hold I take a few gulps of dill piclkle juice and the spasms quickly subside! And most often they do not return. If they do, another shot of pickle juice does the trick! I now keep pickle juice in the fridge at all times!

  6. g dewilson
    October 23rd, 2013 at 20:39 | #6

    Hello,
    The pickle juice really works for the leg cramps and the foot i get them all the time and @ nite its really really bad i walk it off and then get the juice and the cramps are gone hell yeap

  1. July 8th, 2010 at 21:42 | #1
  2. March 21st, 2012 at 00:01 | #2
  3. April 10th, 2012 at 18:22 | #3
  4. April 30th, 2013 at 17:25 | #4
  5. August 14th, 2013 at 17:15 | #5