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Does Pickle Juice Stop Muscle Cramps?

Whether you’re an elite athlete or weekend sports warrior, muscle cramps can affect performance. Research done by a North Dakota State University professor may shed light on how to alleviate them. Kevin C. Miller, Ph.D., certified athletic trainer and assistant professor of health, nutrition and exercise science at NDSU, investigates whether pickle juice affects muscle cramps.

In previous research, Dr. Miller found that 25 percent of certified athletic trainers surveyed use extremely small amounts of pickle juice to shorten the duration of athletes’ cramps, under the assumption that the pickle juice replenishes salt and fluids lost to sweat. What really causes the cramps and how to relieve them quickly are some of the areas of scientific study.

Miller and researchers at Brigham Young University studied healthy male college students in an exercise lab. Subjects in the study bicycled in 30-minute sessions to achieve mild dehydration. The tibial nerve in the men’s ankles was then stimulated, which causes a muscle in the big toe to cramp. When subjects drank nothing, the subjects’ cramps lasted two-and-half minutes on average.

After resting, cramps were induced again, but this time, men in the study immediately drank 2.5 ounces of deionized water or they drank pickle juice strained from a jar of dill pickles in a double-blind fashion. Blood samples were taken before and after the men drank the fluids to see if blood sodium, potassium, magnesium, or calcium levels changed after drinking. Study results show that pickle juice relieved the cramps about 45 percent faster than if the men drank no fluids and about 37 percent faster than those who drank water. “Even more interesting,” says Miller, “is that study results showed there were no significant changes in the blood following ingestion of either water or of pickle juice.”

Dr. Miller’s research has shown that mild dehydration may not be the culprit that causes muscle cramping. Since the pickle juice used in the studies did not have time to leave the men’s stomachs during the experiment, the pickle juice would not have had enough time to replenish lost fluids and salt in affected muscles.

The research conducted by Miller and his team leads to the theory that another mechanism causes such cramping and the pickle juice acts like a set of brakes on a car to stop it. He suspects that muscle exhaustion rather than mild dehydration might be the cause, since other research has found that mechanisms in muscles can misfire if a muscle reaches exhaustion. Miller says the pickle juice may affect nervous system receptors that send out signals that then disrupt the muscle cramping. “The relief of cramping by pickle juice likely represents a neurological phenomenon rather than a metabolic one,” says Miller, whose research has been published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, in the Journal of Athletic Training, Muscle and Nerve, and in Athletic Therapy Today.

So what’s an athlete to do? Miller cautions people not to drink large amounts of pickle juice and to talk with their physician first before trying pickle juice, given the high prevalence of hypertension in the U.S. Rather than reaching for the nearest jar of pickles, if a muscle painfully cramps, Miller suggests stretching it. He emphasizes all his studies have been done on healthy young men, so results may not apply to weekend warriors or female athletes. Miller will be presenting his research and speaking about the causes of muscle cramps at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on June 23.

Dr. Miller joined the NDSU Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Science in 2009. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and doctorate degree in physical medicine and rehabilitation from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

For more information:
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, May 2010 - Volume 42 - Issue 5 - pp 953-961

Reflex Inhibition of Electrically Induced Muscle Cramps in Hypohydrated Humans

Journal of Athletic Training, Vol. 44, Issue 5 (Sept. 2009) pp.454-561
Electrolyte and Plasma Changes After Ingestion of Pickle Juice, Water, and a Common Carbohydrate-Electrolyte Solution
New York Times, June 9, 2010
Phys Ed: Can Pickle Juice Stop Muscle Cramps?
Dr. Kevin C. Miller, North Dakota State University
National Athletic Trainers’ Association Annual Meeting

Carol Renner | Newswise Science News
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