A Wet Hot American Summer: What is a cramp and does pickle juice fix it?

Source: by artist Andrew Kolb, available from mondotees.com

Per weather predictions it’s shaping up to be just what the title denotes not just in Maine’s Camp Firewood but across most of the good ‘ol Red White and Blue.

As I write, the sun has just set on another enthralling 2018 Wimbledon at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club where not only did Mansour Bahrami et al. provide another master class of trick shot tennis, but as the bracket shows, a resurging Serbia (Novak Djokovic) ultimately claimed the coveted cup from a twice grand slam finalist in South Africa (Kevin Anderson) by a World Cup score of 3-0.

The grueling matches contested on the slowly browning perennial rye grass coupled with the broiling national weather drew a memory from my halcyon days as a junior tennis player in Texas.  Having successfully vanquished my opponent by virtue of the dreaded double bagel (read: default), I sauntered self-importantly – as only high schoolers who think they are good at sports are wont to do – over to the grill in search of unearned nourishment.

An eyebrow raised as I noted a line of small Dixie cups containing chartreuse liquids labeled “pickle juice.”  My quizzical expression was met by a salesperson loudly proclaiming, “Yep, Dr. **** says that there’s stuff called quinine in there that prevents muscle cramps.”

Pickle juice.  Old wives tale?  Tour secret?  Could the omnipresent bottle of orange-yellow liquid Rafael Nadal constantly fiddles with be infused?  Does his $700-800K Richard Mille tourbillon inject synthetically enhanced pickle juice components directly into his bloodstream (why else would it be that expensive hold thy tongue horologists)?

Curiouser and curiouser, lets delve into this mystery.

Charley horse!

Scientists have been hypothesizing about why exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMCs) randomly develop in the healthy and unhealthy since the 1900s.  Presuming absence from medical conditions mimicking or medications associated with, EAMCs are anecdotally known to occur during, well, traditional wet hot American summers although they certainly can occur in cool to frigid temperatures as well.  Today, we have two prevailing theories as to why they occur.

Theory #1

  1. Dehydration + electrolyte imbalance = what everyone thinks.  This stems from data showing folks with a tendency to cramp having higher sweat concentrations of sodium (Na+), leading to a total body loss of Na+, in part causing bloodstream sodium/potassium imbalances, nerve deformation/dysfunction and hence EAMCs.

Sensible, no?  As about two thirds of athletic trainers could tell you, replenishing fluids and electrolytes are key – and pickle juice is currently a part of that regimen perhaps due to the Na+?

But alas, not quite.

It is true you should stay hydrated.  It is true there is anecdotal + scientific evidence of pickle juice decreasing muscle cramp duration/intensity.  It’s just that it’s less likely secondary to an electrolyte imbalance in the bloodstream.  How so?

  • Substantial dehydration with moderate electrolyte loss has been reported to be independent of EAMC susceptibility.
  • Stretching the muscle (as we all know) helps alleviate EAMCs, and alleviation through stretching has also been reported to be independent of systemic electrolyte concentrations.  
  • Another study reported ingestion of 1mL/kg body mass of pickle juice (one dose) during mild dehydration didn’t much alter sodium or potassium or replete their losses fully.  This argues against a dose of pickle juice improving muscle cramps through electrolyte repletion.

Theory #2:

  • The overactive motor nerve = reportedly most current, academically accepted mechanism.  It states that EAMCs are generated from neurons originating from the spinal cord which – for numerous reasons including muscle fatigue – lose the ability to regulate how they stimulate and how they halt stimulation to the muscles.

The debate of course, is far from over.


For cramping in a healthy person, yes.  The primary mechanism of pickle juice is thought to be the acetic acid.  Interestingly, this reportedly binds ion channel receptors (TRPV1, TRPA1) in the mouth and throat, several steps later leading to increased inhibition of the overactive nerve and lessened duration of cramps – at least in the paper’s experimentally induced cramps.  Along this train of thought, vinegar (with more acetic acid) might even be better but grosser.

Note: briefly, a number of therapies for EAMCs exist both over-the-counter and at the prescription level including quinine, mustard, B vitamins, diltiazem, mexiletine, carbamazepine and how they work are out of this scope of discussion.

In conclusion, if one hates pickle juice or anything with that sour/pungent acetic acid taste, there is an interesting product (no, I don’t receive royalties) based off of the above mechanism.  The idea is the liquid product binds better to the ion channels in your throat and alleviates the cramp more quickly than, say, pickle juice.  This is in production with the names of a well-known academic duo who study ion channels for a living – one from Harvard University, one from Rockefeller University – whom as the story goes both simultaneously cramped while kayaking, survived and were angry enough at Mother Nature to do something about it.

Note: because the HotShot product is for general use and comprised of ingredients that are generally safe, the science behind it is still growing and not necessarily as stringent prior to production of a true FDA approved pharmaceutical.  But because its ingredients are reasonably harmless and the product is inexpensive, it can be viewed as a reasonable try-it-and-see product (plenty of folks already have).  True scientific purists however, will likely be at odds with this product.

Good thing we folks here have an interest in tennis, it seems better than the alternative.

Any cramp remedies that people find anecdotally work or don’t work?  Anything outrageous or unusual?

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