Pickle Juice for Muscle Cramps: Does It Help?

Whether brought on by exercise or linked to specific conditions like cirrhosis, muscle cramps are fairly common and can be excruciating. The use of pickle juice as a possible treatment for these cramps has gained popularity in recent years. This article investigates pickle juice's potential to relieve certain kinds of cramps by examining the available scientific data, nutritional makeup, and suggested mechanisms of action.

Key takeaways:

For many athletes, physically active people, and/or those with certain medical conditions like cirrhosis, muscle cramps are a common and frequently excruciating problem. Muscle cramps can sometimes make it difficult to exercise, perform physical labor, or even go about your everyday business. Although there are already a number of ways to treat and avoid these cramps, pickle juice has recently come to light as a possible remedy.

Origins of using pickle juice for cramps

Contrary to popular belief, pickle juice is not a recent invention. Pickle juice has been used for decades, if not longer, as a treatment for muscular cramps. It is hard to say when pickle juice was first used to treat cramps, but there has been evidence of its use in professional sports since the early 2000s.

On September 3, 2000, in the hottest football game ever played (109 degrees), the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that was picked to lose, defied the odds and defeated the Dallas Cowboys 41–14. What was their secret? Before the game, Rick Burkholder, their athletic trainer, advised them all to drink pickle juice to stay better hydrated and prevent muscle cramps from the intense heat.

This game was called "The Pickle Juice Game" and was among the first uses of pickle juice to enhance sports performance that had been reported in the media. Since then, science has been exploring the potential use of pickle juice for muscle cramps, and this is what they’ve found so far.

Scientific research

There is not much scientific study on pickle juice's effects yet. While some studies have shown benefits, others have produced conflicting findings.

Problems in the research include the inconsistent composition of pickle juice (salt, vinegar, electrolytes, ratios, etc.) and the requirement to regulate a large number of variables (participant hydration level, electrode-induced cramps versus spontaneous cramping, serum measurements vs participant reporting/feedback, etc.). There is still more research being done to try and elucidate these factors.

The first evidence of pickle juice helping to relieve muscle cramps comes from a study that did report positive results and was published in the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Participants in this study cycled for 30 minutes at a time until they experienced mild dehydration. At that point, researchers sent electrical shocks to their big toe, inducing cramps. They were given water, pickle juice, or nothing at all during this process.

As compared to water and drinking nothing at all, pickle juice was found to relieve cramps roughly 37% and 45% faster, respectively. According to blood serum tests, the study also came to the conclusion that, contrary to what was first believed, "it is unlikely that pickle juice's effects on muscle cramp duration are due to the changes in plasma electrolytes or body fluid chemistry."

There were two main reasons this was concluded. First off, the electrolyte content of pickle juice is actually fairly low and has no effect on blood or serum electrolyte levels. Two, pickle juice does not absorb very quickly through the GI tract (actual GI absorption would take closer to 30 minutes, while cramp relief was reported 1–2 minutes after ingestion).

Proposed mechanisms of action

Many trainers, athletes, and even medical professionals initially believed that pickle juice prevented dehydration and maintained proper electrolyte balance, which is why it worked; however, more recent research suggests a different explanation.

Causes the alpha motor neuron activity to cramping muscles to decrease shortly after ingestion, thereby triggering an inhibitory oropharyngeal reflex. <...> acetic acid could play a role in triggering [this] reflex, although the ingredient in pickle juice that elicits the decrease in cramp duration is unknown.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

This leaves us wondering what ingredient in pickle juice could be responsible for this oropharyngeal reflex. While these results are encouraging, more research is necessary to determine whether, how, and why pickle juice relieves muscle cramps.

The last words

Although the benefits of pickle juice for preventing muscle cramps are still up for debate, further research may soon be conducted in light of encouraging research findings. In order to determine whether pickle juice can be a dependable and consistent treatment for this common issue, more research is necessary to better understand how pickle juice helps with cramping in the muscles.

As long as they are aware of the scant scientific data and consult their nutritionist or healthcare professional first, athletes and those who are prone to muscle cramps may want to give pickle juice a try in the interim.

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