People’s Pharmacy: What to do when quinine doesn’t ease leg cramps - The Buffalo News
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People’s Pharmacy: What to do when quinine doesn’t ease leg cramps

Have you ever been awakened from a delightful dream by sudden, excruciating pain in your leg? In an instant, your sleep is interrupted, and you are desperate for relief.

It is not entirely clear why some people are so susceptible to such nighttime misery. One theory is that vital minerals, such as potassium, magnesium or sodium, get out of balance. Another is that muscle fatigue from exercise takes time to make itself known.

Regardless of the cause, doctors have little to offer for relief. In past decades, they were able to prescribe the herbal medicine quinine. Then the Food and Drug Administration banned its use for anything other than malaria.

The agency decided that the risks outweighed the benefits. Some people are exceptionally sensitive to quinine toxicity and may develop tinnitus, nausea, dizziness, headache, blurred vision or rash after they take it. A few develop life-threatening allergies, blood reactions or heart-rhythm changes.

The lack of approved treatments explains why home remedies are so popular for muscle cramps. One reader reported: “For many years I experienced very severe leg cramps. My physician suggested drinking tonic water. For the past year, I have drunk about 3 ounces of diet tonic water every night and have had NO leg cramps.”

It is hard to understand how the very small amount of quinine found in 3 ounces of tonic water would be effective. When doctors prescribed quinine for cramps, the usual dose was 200 to 300 mg in a pill. Tonic water contains approximately 80 mg of quinine in an entire liter, meaning that 3 ounces should have less than 10 mg of quinine.

Still, other readers also have found tonic water helpful. Here is one report: “My doctor recommended tonic water for nocturnal leg cramps. It works every time very quickly. In less than five minutes I get relief and can go back to sleep. I suffer NO pains if I drink half a glass before I go to bed.”

What works for some people, though, does not work for others. Many visitors to our website report that swallowing a teaspoon of mustard relieves muscle cramps almost like magic.

Pickle juice also has its supporters: “Every time I get a charley horse I take a few sips of pickle juice and it is gone within minutes – even the worst leg cramps that wake me up at night.”

Then there are the soap devotees. They swear that putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet in the neighborhood of their calves staves off nighttime leg cramps.

Here’s one story: “My husband was having severe leg cramps at night. Several times he woke up screaming from the pain. When I read about soap on your website, I thought we had nothing to lose.

“My husband had already gone to sleep when I slid the bar of soap under the sheet near his legs. That night: no cramps. After a few days without cramps, I told him about the soap. He laughed but did not remove it. Since he didn’t know about it, it can’t have been a placebo action.

“I work for six doctors. When I told them about it, five of them laughed at me. I think one went out secretly and bought himself a bar of soap.”

You’ll find more details on these and other ways to quell nighttime leg cramps in our book “Quick and Handy Home Remedies” (available from

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