Leg Cramps Cause Tough Marine Engineer to Scream in Pain

By W. Gifford-Jones, M.D
Created: November 9, 2012 Last Updated: November 9, 2012
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Leg cramps can interfere with sports performance. This article gives one solution to this debilitating problem. (Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Leg cramps can interfere with sports performance. This article gives one solution to this debilitating problem. (Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Do you remember the September 2000 headlines reporting that the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 100-degree Texas heat? Rick Burkholder, the Eagles head trainer, said his players remained cramp-free because of his secret weapon—pickle juice!

The benefit of pickles goes back to antiquity. Cucumbers are mentioned twice in the Bible, and history records their use in Asia, Egypt, and Greece. Cucumbers were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus and were grown on Haiti. U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were pickle enthusiasts.

What triggered my interest in pickle juice was a report published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.” ( Researchers at Brigham Young University asked volunteer college students to exercise. They were then given a mild electrical current to induce a muscle cramp.

At that point they were told to drink either water or pickle juice. The result? Pickle juice relieved cramps 40 percent faster. Researchers concluded that pure vinegar would probably work just as well as pickle juice.

Pickle companies were of course ecstatic about these results. In fact, one of the companies, sensing a business opportunity, created a sports drink to alleviate leg cramps due to strenuous exercise.

What is so special about pickles? This research reminded me of an episode that happened to me while working as a ship’s surgeon many years ago. After a couple of days at sea, I received an urgent call to go the engine room.

I found a large, muscular man lying on the floor screaming in pain. He had been warned to take salt tablets routinely while working in the hot, humid engine room but had neglected to do so. He never had to be reminded again.

Some researchers have questioned the theory that the lack of salt causes leg cramps. It may be that other factors are also involved in triggering leg cramps. But anyone who has witnessed a tough marine engineer who is writhing in pain but is quickly restored to normal by simply taking salt would find it hard not to be impressed.

Exercising in hot weather can cause excessive sweating with loss of salt, resulting in dehydration and muscle cramps. When you sweat, you lose salt and electrolytes. Cells in the body use electrolytes to maintain voltages across cell membranes. This allows electrical impulses to be carried from cell to cell. Pickle juice contains a large amount of salt and other electrolytes.

But it’s not just marine engineers and football stars who suffer from leg cramps. Some people complain of nighttime pain, referred to as restless leg syndrome. If blood studies show that anemia is present, oral iron can be helpful.

In other cases, this bothersome symptom can be eased by magnesium. This mineral, known as nature’s natural muscle relaxant, is deficient in most North Americans.

Several years ago, an 80-year-old tennis player had to stop playing the game he loved due to leg pain. His condition, known as intermittent claudication, was caused by a lack of oxygen supply to the legs.

Several months later, he happened to read a column I had written about the use of vitamin E to treat this problem. He started taking 1,200 IU of natural vitamin E daily and two months later was back playing tennis.

Vitamin E has recently received bad press from researchers who have downgraded its use in heart disease prevention. But I prefer facts rather than large statistical studies that fail to tell the whole story.

For example, it’s a scientific fact that if rats are given vitamin E, they can run longer on a treadmill than rats that do not receive it. It’s because vitamin E increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

The longer I practice medicine, the more I realize that whether it’s pickle juice or other natural remedies, most are safer and often more effective than prescription medication. My rule is to try them first and do no harm.

Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto. His website is He may be contacted at

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