Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Leg cramps are a common issue for people of all ages. It is estimated that up to 60% of adults have occasional leg cramps. Women tend to get cramps more than men and they occur more frequently at night than during the day.
#1 Why do I keep getting cramps in my legs?
Several risk factors make people more prone to cramps, such as:
- Disease states
- Strenuous exercise
Mix a few of these factors together and the likelihood of cramps goes way up. For example, even athletes who are in good shape can get leg cramps when they become dehydrated from strenuous workouts.
Disease states that can cause cramping:
- Kidney disease
- Circulatory disease (Examples: Intermittent Claudication, Peripheral Vascular Disease)
Medications can also be the culprit. If you notice an increase in the number of times you are cramping, the first thought should be medication. Think back to if you have recently started or stopped a medication and if that may correlate to when the cramping frequency increased.
Medications that can cause cramping:
- Diuretics (Ex: hydrochlorothiazide, chlorthalidone furosemide, bumetanide)
- Cholesterol drugs (Ex: Statins such as simvastatin, atorvastatin, rosuvastatin, pravastatin)
- Alzheimers drugs (Ex: donepezil)
#2 What actually causes leg cramps?
Cramps are really just contractions of muscles that you did not intend to contract. Furthermore, you can’t get the muscle to relax (even though you want to) while it is cramping!
Most people believe that cramps are caused by low electrolyte levels in the body. Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, regulate the ability of your nerve and muscle cells to be able to contract by either flowing into or out of a cell.
Studies have shown that electrolyte loss is not the sole cause of cramping in patients who had recently exercised. They found that over two thirds of patients still experienced exercised associated muscle cramps even if they had been given supplemental hydration with electrolytes.
Looks like reaching for a banana may not be the best solution!
What else could cause cramps?
Scientist speculate that nerves that are controlling the muscles which cramp may be the problem. Possibly even nerves located in the brain stem and spinal column.
When muscles get fatiuged the nerves that are causing them to fire start overacting and induce something called the stretch reflex. It is the stretch reflex that actually caused the prolonged muscle contraction that is the hallmark symptom in cramps.
#3 How do you stop leg cramps fast?
When the cramp comes on, few things are more important than stopping it quickly. Hydrating with water and eating bananas has not proven to be effective for quick resolution. Even electrolyte containing drinks do not act quickly due to time needed for absorption.
That leaves pickle juice as one of the few remedies found to relieve muscle cramps quickly. In one study it was noted to relieve electrically induced muscle cramps in approximately 85 seconds!
#4 How can it work so quickly?
When you drink pickle juice the process of absorbing it from your stomach and intestines would take longer than 85 seconds. Typically, it take around 30 minutes for food and liquid you ingest to exit the stomach. So how can it start to relieve cramps before it is even absorbed?
It is believed that pickle juice interacts with nerve centers in the digestive tract. These nerve centers consist of ion channels that activate nerves in the spinal column and prevents firing of neurons that cause cramping muscles. Researchers from Harvard have suggested these nerve center are located in the mouth, throat and esophagus.
It is believed that the overbearing taste of the vinegar in the pickle juice is actually what stimulates these nerve centers. Possibly opening the way for other vinegar containing drinks to work to relieve cramps.
#5 The proof pickle juice works!
It is not often that home remedies have good studies to support their use. However, with pickle juice that is actually the case.
The study done by Miller and associates was worth understanding exactly what methods they used to capture cramping as it tends to be a random event.
- 10 male college students were in an exercise facility.
- They completed 30 minute bicycling sessions in a warm room.
- Bicycling sessions continues with 5 minute breaks between until 3% of their body weight had been lost.
- Their tibial nerve near the ankle was then electrically stimulated, causing a cramp.
- They had to endure the cramp and let it run its course and this time to resolution was recorded.
- After the cramp subsided a rest period was given before they were electrically stimulated again.
- On the second cramp they were immediately given 2.5 ounces of pickle juice or deionized water.
- Once again the time to resolution of the cramp was recorded.
The mean time it took for those who drank pickle juice and it relieved the cramp was 85 seconds. The first cramp that resolved on its own the resolution time was almost 3 minutes (153 seconds). Pickle juice almost cut the time for the cramp to go away in half! For the participants who were given water their time to resolution no different than when they had been given nothing and allowed the cramp to resolve on its own. This means that pickle juice resolved the cramp 45% faster than letting it run its course or drinking deionized water.
While the study is not a double blind, randomized trial which is the gold standard for proving cause and effect, this study is impressive for a home remedy. They even controlled for a placebo effect by having all the participants wear a nose plug so they could not tell if they were drinking water or pickle juice.
#6 How much pickle juice should you drink for leg cramps?
Pickle juice is a brine, which means it is a salty water and vinegar mixture that cucumbers are pickled with. It seems that the vinegar component, which is weakly acidic, helps it work quickly so drinking the juice from the pickle jar straight could be important. Therefore, adding water to make it taste better may decrease effectiveness.
In the key study that seemed to prove pickle juice provides quick relief from cramps they gave the patients two to three ounces of straight pickle juice.
#7 Does it have to be the juice?
Pickle juice has become more widely known as a remedy for muscle cramps.
Technically pickles themselves have a large amount of pickle juice in them so it is likely (though not proven in studies) that eating a pickle may have the same effect as pickle juice on cramps.
They are delicious, so why not try and it and if it works for you. Garden grown pickles also have high levels of the probiotic Lactobacillus that promotes the growth of normal (good) bacteria in your gut.
#8 Are there side effect from drinking pickle juice?
Pickle juice in small doses of two to three ounces used sparingly for muscle cramps is highly unlikely to cause any side effects.
Concerns have also been raised about dehydration stemming from drinking pickle juice. The ability of this small amount of fluid to dehydrate an adult is highly unlikely.
Since the main ingredients in pickle juice are salt, water, pickles and vinegar the salt content is high. The main component of salt is sodium and that could be a concern for patients who are salt sensitive. Increasing sodium can lead to water retention and that would be problematic for patients with:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)
Patients who have gout could be at risk for a flare up from pickle juice. The acidity from the vinegar in pickle juice could change your body pH and lead to crystals of uric acid to accumulate in joints such as the toes.
Finally, the acidity of pickle juice could cause patients who suffer from Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) to experience pain from reflux.
Again, with the small amount needed to treat muscle cramps the likelihood of these side effects is small. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before using pickle juice if you have any of the following disease states just to ensure there are no issues for you!
#9 Does apple cider vinegar work for cramps?
Given that the vinegar in pickle juice is getting the credit for alleviating the cramps, it would make sense that apple cider vinegar may be of benefit too.
Apple cider vinegar is a product that has been claimed to be effective for many problems. Check out 9 Key Truths about Apple Cider Vinegar for more details. Cramping, specifically in women with menstrual cramps is another proposed use. Though studies are lacking it is claimed to work and similar to pickle juice, act quickly.
Some claim that apple cider vinegar can even help prevent cramps. Certainly if you have cramping frequently at night, then keeping a few ounces of apple cider vinegar or pickle juice next to your bed might be a good idea. In addition, taking apple cider vinegar before bed could help prevent cramps as well.
How much apple cider vinegar should I drink for leg cramps?
Most advocates of apple cider vinegar claim one to two ounces is an adequate amount. The taste is often hard to deal with, so dissolving two teaspoons in a little honey can make it more palatable.
#10 What else can treat cramps?
Stretching the muscle helps to stop the increased firing of the nerve and reflexes that are causing the cramp. Gently stretch the muscle and slowly count to 10, taking deep breaths and then repeating until the cramps subside.
Massaging the muscle can also help break up the contractions. If you are unable to reach the muscle to massage it yourself asking someone to massage it for you. You can also try to lay down and pull the affected muscle within your reach or massage it against another object.
If you have a microwavable towel or a heating pad, get it warm and apply to the cramping muscle. Leave the heat on the muscle as long as needed and do not remove it too soon.
Some patients benefit from cooling effects of ice on a sore and cramping muscle especially if the cramp is related to a strenuous exercise activity. Make sure to use a towel or cloth to keep the ice from laying directly on your skin.
What is the best vitamin for leg cramps?
B vitamin complexes are used for numerous processes in the body and are generally viewed as a worthwhile supplement to use. There are claims that B vitamins can help prevent muscle cramps especially in people who have cramps associated with medication use.
#11 When should you go to the doctor?
Typically cramps do not require a trip to the doctor. However, if you are having cramps that recur frequently or are keeping you from sleeping at night, that can point to a bigger problem. In general, if you have one of the diseases or take a medication listed above you may want to talk to your doctor.
Prior to your appointment you will want to put together details for your doctor to make the visit as successful as possible. Check out 7 Essential Steps to Prepare a Doctors Visit Checklist.
In the case of muscle cramps here are some specific questions to ask yourself and then relay to your doctor.
- A complete list of medications: prescription, OTC, vitamins, herbals
- All diseases you have been diagnosed with in the past (in case the doctor you see may not know).
- Symptoms of the cramps, how often, what time of day, after any activity in general, during sleep? Top 5 Reasons for Bullet Journaling Medication Effects would be a great guide for tracking symptoms prior to the visit.
- Recent life changes or other things that can cause stress, such as surgery etc.
- Family medical history for immediate family members.
Remember what they say!
If you have trouble remembering what the doctor tells you or get confused by medical jargon then do one of the following:
- Take notes
- Ask if you can record the conversation
- Take a family member, who has a medical background or a good memory with you.
Questions to make sure you get answered
- What is the probable cause of my cramps?
- Is this going to be temporary or ongoing?
- Should I drink pickle juice?
- What other treatments should I try?
Click here to get Dr. Jason Reed’s exclusive list of medication questions you MUST ask your doctor, for FREE!
Share your story!
Have you tried pickle juice? How well did it work for your cramps? Please chime in below with your comments and thoughts below.