The new way to cure cramps
Forget bananas or electrolyte drinks before you exercise to prevent cramps. If you want to kick off cramps you’re better off giving yourself a shock instead.
Cramps affect up to 95 per cent of us, yet until recently, the cause remained a mystery
Contrary to popular belief, cramps are not commonly caused by depleted potassium and sodium stores.
For this reason replenishing fluids and salts won’t help. However drinking fluids of a certain kind – like vinegar or pickle juice – can do the trick, just not for the reason many of us think.
A series of studies from 2010 found that cramps could be induced in hyrdrated participants as easily as dehydrated ones.
In another experiment, the same participants were given either water or pickle juice (which one 2008 survey found one quarter of coaches give their athletes to combat cramps) as the cramps were induced.The cramps continued for those who drank water but stopped quickly for those who were given the acidic pickle juice.
Researchers concluded that muscle cramps may not originate in the muscle at all but in our nerves. The acidity of the juice, they hypothesised, stimulated nerves, somehow disrupting signals that cause muscles to cramp.
Still the mechanism was not understood.
But after his own experiences cramping on a kayaking trip when he was well-hydrated, Rod MacKinnon, a Nobel Prize
winning scientist from Rockefeller University, decided to explore further.
Mackinnon and colleague Bruce Bean, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School, extended on the pickle juice findings, conducting a series of tests to to see whether they could affect excessive firing of neurons that control muscle contraction. This time they used spicy liquid concoctions of ginger and cinnamon and chilli to stimulate nerve receptors in the mouth, throat and stomach.
MacKinnon and Bean gave the drink to half the participants in the trial and gave placebo to the other half.
The researchers then used an electrical neurostimulator to induce muscle cramps in all participants. The experiment was repeated, with the groups’ liquids swapped.
According to a statement, when they had the spicy drink the cramps were three times less intense than when they received the placebo.
“The treatment took effect within minutes and lasted up to six to eight hours,” the researchers added in the statement.
“The primary origin of the cramp is the nerve, not the muscle,” MacKinnon, who has recently released a spice formula based on the study, confirmed to Wall Street Journal. “The strong sensory input causes inhibition of the motor output.”
MacKinnon’s findings help explain why some people get cramps in the middle of the night, early on in exercise when they’re not depleted or at times when they are not dehydrated.
Adjunct professor from the University of South Australia, Allan Bretag says it sounds like “a reasonable idea to me”, but questions claims that cramps begin in motor neurons in the nervous system.
“Other people suggest cramps begin in the nerve endings in the muscles,” says Bretag, whose research focus is muscle function.
Even if that is the case, Bretag says “some of those spices act on ion channels [which facilitate electrical signals] in nerve receptors, so in sensory nerve endings”.
This could theoretically suppress messages that begin in those nerve endings preventing the muscles from contracting, he explains.
Bretag, who has himself experienced a common type of cramp in his jaw just from yawning too widely, adds that there is unlikely to be a single cause of cramps.
“Some cramps can be caused by dehydration or if people’s electrolytes go out of balance they can get cramps, but those are not the usual causes,” he says.
“My suggestion would be to give these spices a try and certainly make sure you are hydrated. I don’t think you have to go out of your way drinking sport’s drinks. With an ordinary balanced diet and sufficient water you are not going to be suffering dehydration and electrolyte-induced cramps.”
And a shot of tabasco before you work out? MacKinnon claims to have figured out the perfect ratio of spices in his formula to prevent cramps, but it can’t hurt to try Bretag says.
“I think [the spices are] something that is certainly worth exploring further before it is absolutely proven, but it’s a good idea.”
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