By Michael Stanclift, ND
You’re feeling that rush as you catch your stride on your morning run. The air is perfect. Suddenly a cramp or muscle ache stops you dead in your tracks. You try to shake it off, but it just grabs more. Ah!
We still don’t completely understand why muscles tighten up involuntarily. Exercise, pregnancy, electrolyte imbalances, nerve compression, and diminished blood supply to the muscle all may contribute.1,2 So what can we do to combat these harmless but pesky discomforts? In this article we’ll look at what the research says. Surprisingly, some popular natural remedies don’t shine through in the current medical evidence.
What might not help with cramping
Magnesium and Epsom salts:
A Cochrane Review found that oral magnesium wasn’t likely to help with muscle cramps in older people, and the findings were inconsistent in pregnant women.3 A recent randomized, placebo-controlled trial in pregnant women found no difference in leg cramps with magnesium compared to placebo.4
Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths have long been a go-to for muscle relaxation, and “float” centers with sensory deprivation tanks full of the magnesium-rich water have popped up as an urban refuge from the constant stimulation of modern life. A study in nonathletic healthy men found a one-hour float (in magnesium sulfate) after exercise reduced pain perception compared to one hour of passive recovery.5 However, these findings are tough to attribute to magnesium, as the study’s control didn’t match other potentially therapeutic factors, such as body positioning and sensory deprivation.5 So a relaxing bath may help with cramping and muscles, but it’s unclear if adding Epsom salt makes a significant difference.
Active cool-down and static stretching:
Many believe after exercising intensely a period of low-to-moderate intensity will prevent muscle soreness and injuries, but this doesn’t appear to be true.6 A 2018 review found evidence on active cool-downs shows it doesn’t significantly reduce soreness, stiffness, or range of motion and may inhibit muscular glycogen resynthesis (energy storage).6 This same review found that static stretching before or after exercise didn’t reduce muscle soreness.6
What might help with muscle cramping:
This surprisingly simple tool can be valuable if you suffer from muscle soreness and cramps. Using a foam roller after exercise can reduce muscle soreness and improve athletic performance the following day.6 Physical therapists from Harvard agree that 30-120 seconds per area can be helpful in relieving sore muscles and preventing cramps.7
Tart cherry or pomegranate juice:
A small randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found 355 ml (~12 oz.) of tart cherry juice drunk twice a day for a week before a 26 km (16-mile) run reduced the amount of pain reported from participants.8 A research review found similar effects from drinking tart cherry juice twice a day, and one study found pomegranate juice reduced soreness.9 But the research on these two drinks in relation to muscle soreness has shown mixed results.9 A recent study compared tart cherry, pomegranate, and placebo drinks to analyze the impact on muscle soreness in nonresistance trained men.10 In this study, the researchers were surprised to find that neither of the fruit drinks appeared to help with muscle soreness when compared to placebo.10
In a small double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial in experienced runners, 5 days of powdered ginger supplementation (1.4 g/day) moderately reduced muscle soreness from a run (on day 3) during the supplement period.11 A review of randomized clinical trials found that consuming up to 4 g of ginger postintense exercise can reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery.12 Lower single dosages of 2 g ginger did not help with muscle soreness when compared to placebo.12 This suggests it may take multiple days or higher doses to get the effect.
It’s no surprise that curcumin, a bright orange compound from the spice turmeric is making news again. A research review found curcumin in a wide range of doses (150 mg-5,000 mg) can reduce muscle soreness after exercise.13 Curcumin can work when used on an “as needed” basis, with even a single dose (150-200 mg) showing effectiveness for muscle soreness following exercise.13 Interestingly, in this review they found small doses (90 mg twice a day) of curcumin taken for 7 days before exercise had no effect on postexercise soreness, while the same dosage taken after exercise for 4 days was effective.13 Other studies in the review at similar doses did not find curcumin improved muscle soreness compared to placebo, so differences in the trial participants and types of exercise may influence the effects.13
Conclusion:Cramping and muscle soreness can ruin a good exercise session, but they don’t have to. When it comes to combatting these annoying aches, you have numerous options—but beware that some popular natural treatments might be more hype than help.
1. Young G. Leg cramps. BMJ Clin Evid. 2015;2015:1113.
2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Muscle cramps. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/syc-20350820#:~:text=Overuse%20of%20a%20muscle%2C%20dehydration,Inadequate%20blood%20supply. Accessed February 11, 2021.
3. Garrison SR et al. Magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;2012(9):CD009402.
4. Araújo CAL et al. Oral magnesium supplementation for leg cramps in pregnancy-An observational controlled trial. PLoS One. 2020;15(1):e0227497.
5. Morgan PM et al. The acute effects of flotation restricted environmental stimulation technique on recovery from maximal eccentric exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(12):3467-3474.
6. Van Hooren B et al. Do we need a cool-down after exercise? A narrative review of the psychophysiological effects and the effects on performance, injuries and the long-term adaptive response. Sports Med. 2018;48(7):1575-1595.
7. Harvard Health Staff. Roll away muscle pain. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/roll-away-muscle-pain#:~:text=Foam%20rollers%20are%20easy%2Dto,from%20exercise%2C%20and%20reduce%20injury.&text=As%20you%20age%2C%20occasional%20muscle,lightweight%20cylinder%20of%20compressed%20foam. Accessed February 11, 2021.
8. Kuehl KS et al. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7:17.
9. Bowtell J et al. Fruit-derived polyphenol supplementation for athlete recovery and performance. Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 1):3-23.
10. Lamb KL et al. No effect of tart cherry juice or pomegranate juice on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in non-resistance trained men. Nutrients. 2019;11(7):1593.
11. Wilson PB. A randomized double-blind trial of ginger root for reducing muscle soreness and improving physical performance recovery among experienced recreational distance runners. J Diet Suppl. 2020;17(2):121-132.
12. Rondanelli M et al. Clinical trials on pain lowering effect of ginger: A narrative review. Phytother Res. 2020;34(11):2843-2856.
13. Yoon WY et al. Curcumin supplementation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS): effects, mechanisms, and practical considerations. Phys Act Nutr. 2020;24(3):39-43.
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