Could a spicy drink be the panacea for muscle cramps?

Start-up biotech company claims to have cracked the treatment code

Anyone who has suffered muscle cramps in competition knows how debilitating they can be.

Anyone who has suffered muscle cramps in competition knows how debilitating they can be.

Agony. Pure agony. That’s the only way I can describe the handful of painful cramping episodes I’ve endured during my decidedly unspectacular cycling career. Whether during races or long weekend rides, the result was the same. Stop on the side of the road or trail and hobble around, trying to coax my body to stop betraying me. It usually happens during hot days on long hard rides, but I honestly don’t have a firm grasp on why or when I cramp — and I’m not alone.

According to biotech company Flex Pharma, an estimated 95 percent of adults experience muscle cramps and more than 4 million adults over the age of 65 suffer nightly leg cramps in the United States. Although it’s widely believed that cramps are a dysregulation of muscle contraction, the cause of these contractions is elusive. The most prevalent theory is that cramping is the result of dehydration or a lack of electrolytes in the muscles.

Count me among the believers of this hypothesis. For long races, I’ve typically relied on a mix of electrolyte pills and copious amounts of sports drink. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. That’s why my personal interest piqued at bold claims emanating from a new Boston-based Flex Pharma, which claims it may have found the panacea for this performance crushing ailment. Be warned that right now these are just claims, but their take is new and interesting. In a nutshell, they say the answer to the problem is pickle juice on steroids.

Could "pickle juice on steroids" help prevent muscle cramps?

Could “pickle juice on steroids” help prevent muscle cramps?

“We have discovered that by activating certain channels found in sensory nerves, there appears to be an impact on hyperactive motor nerves, and those appear to be what causes cramps in the first place,” explained Dr. Bob Murray, an advisor to Flex Pharma. “And basically that positive activation can be caused by a bunch of spices.”

This theory is rooted in recent research, including work by two neuroscientists, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Rod MacKinnon and Harvard professor Dr. Bruce Bean, who founded Flex Pharma and are suggesting that muscle cramping may be caused by uncontrolled repetitive firing of neurons in the spinal cord, resulting in prolonged contraction of the afflicted muscle under the control of the nerve. Therefore treatments that reduce this hyperexcitability of these nerves may reduce or prevent cramping. Check out this video to hear more from MacKinnon.

[vimeo width=”610″ height=”343″][/vimeo]

MacKinnon reasoned that nerves could be recruited to prevent muscle cramps and that the stimulation of the sensory nerves in the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach that triggers a response from the nerves could calm down the motor neurons in the spinal cord.

“Our early finding when experimenting with induced foot cramps is that when subjects consumed spices it helped prevent cramps for up to 4 hours,” added Murray. “That was from 2oz shot. But these subjects were at rest. The current recommendation with our product will be to consume 15 minutes before race and then if needed during competition. You’ll just sip to coat mouth. It will be similar in amount to something like 5 Hour Energy.”

Continue to page 2 to learn more about this new method for treating cramps »
About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the / staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.

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  • Jim DeSalvio says:

    I have been following this story with great interest. From a physiologic point of view, this is a different approach to a significant problem. I experience my first episode of muscle cramps last summer on a long event ride, in hot and humid weather. These guys are real scientists, and are approaching this issue in a scientific manner. Please keep us posted!!!

  • Geoff Binder says:

    I’m a few months short of turning 63. I have been damned to having cramps from when I was a young boy. Very long story which I will not bore you with. I used to get cramps in my toes which was like the tendons were trying to pull my toes into the body of my foot. My big toe would cramp up so it was sticking straight up. As if the toe was injected Viagra.
    Cramps in my ankles that would last 5 days.
    Torn muscles in my calve, my thigh, both back and front of the thigh.
    They were so damaged I barely walk. Camps in my finger’s, my forearms, my abdomen, my chest, OK that’s enough info so you’ll understand what I take for my cramp problem.
    One of my neurologist’s tested me with some electrical generating unit to see what might be causing my cramps. I lucked out. I have the type of muscle cramps the doctor’s don’t understand why.
    Drugs. The dreaded bad pharmaceutical companies have some drugs which are a life saver. For the last 8 years I’ve been taking a 2mg Clonazepam in the morning and another 2mg pill at night. Along with 3 10mg Cyclobenzaprine. Some nights I still get thrown out of my recliner with a bad cramp. I try walking it off. Unless the camp is super bad I wait 30 minutes before I give up and take some more of those two drugs.
    I tried most of the ‘wives tails’ treatments. Some of my leg cramps take more then a week to heal. But the worst ones are where I get another bad cramp in the same damaged muscle.This is just a tiny part of a very long (years) story.

  • Eddie the machoman says:

    I cramp mostly at the end of a ride or when i’m struggling/tired. They also say it could be genes. I cramp and my cousin doesn’t at all. They say it’s hydration – when i used to only use water i drank until i had to pee and still had cramps. Then i tried Endura and other similar electrolyte drinks – it helped – it mostly held the cramps away. And i’ve also now added a spoonful of salt to my drinks – this help even more. Today i ran out of my concoction at about 90% of the ride and started to cramp. So there’s some truth to it….

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