It’s a athlete’s worst second: A hammy seizes to be an older engine down the homestretch to Olympic glory or in the center of the rec jigsaw match. Unexpectedly, rather than chasing gold or bragging rights, then you’re crumpled on the floor begging for deliverance. And it’s not unusual: Research shows exercise-associated muscle cramps affect around 70 percent of endurance runners and cyclists. Who hasn’t experienced a cramp at some stage while exercising challenging?
You’d think science would have found a remedy. After all, researchers have been studying cramps in industrial laborers ever since the early 1900s. In 1932, researchers from Harvard’s”fatigue laboratory” traveled to the construction site of the Hoover Dam to take samples from employees who developed cramps in the heat. They noticed that cramp sufferers had lower concentrations of sodium in the bloodstream and little to no salt in the urine. The scientists concluded, reasonably, that cramps were related to the reduction of salt and water via sweat.
This idea, that cramps are caused by dehydration and also an imbalance in electrolytes, persisted. Trainers were invited to down sports drinks, salt tablets, or bananas (a source of the electrolyte potassium) to alleviate or prevent cramps. Trainers also started giving cramping athletes pickle juice–a brine of salt, vinegar, and water. It worked so quickly that scientists discovered it confusing. “In our 2010 study, we had this weird phenomenon where cramps seemed go away faster when you drink pickle juice,” states Kevin C. Miller, Ph.D., ATC, a research scientist at Central Michigan University,”but there’s no change to the major electrolytes or blood.”
In 1997, a South African exercise researcher had put forth a theory regarding muscle cramps that explained the pickle-juice phenomenon: Two categories of neuroreceptors work as a sort of teeter-totter to your musclesand they can get out of whack when you exercise too difficult. “One side tells your nervous system, Relax, chill out. The other side, Hey, get excited,” Miller says. “When you become fatigued, there’s an imbalance in that teeter-totter towards the excitatory side.”
Miller now thought that some thing in the pickle juice–vinegar, possibly? –was initiating a nerve wracking in the mouth that zipped down the spinal cord and then calmed the overexcited teeter-totter. But people who had committed their careers to studying dehydration didn’t switch over easily.
It’s difficult to simulate muscle cramping in a lab, and individuals questioned the method Miller used, which involved shocking the big toe until it cramped. That is not like the cramps that occur following an athlete runs or cycles for hours, states exercise researcher Michael Bergeron, Ph.D.”For you to tell me that there’s no sodium issue because your blood sodium is normal tells me you have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says.
Nothing lights up academics like a pissing contest over a new theory. Pros quibbled over official sports-organization remarks, sent negative reviews of each other’s talks, and took potshots at each other in journals. On one side, you had people who believed Miller: It was a haywire neural process. Think of these as the neural camp. On the other side, the dehydration camp, who believed that eliminating electrolyte imbalances from the cramp equation was a mistake. Further muddying the controversy was that a substantial portion of sports-nutrition research is funded by electrolyte-hydration brands. Nobody knew whom to believe.
Marketing into the anti-cramp rescue!
In 2016, the makers of a product known as HotShot established a 1.7–oz beverage that tastes just like getting punched in the face with a pack of Big Red gum. It is only the most up-to-date in a long line of over-the-counter cramp remedies, such as CrampX, Sportlegs, and various formulations of pickle juice. ) But HotShot inspired a scathing editorial in an academic journal and sparked the cramp blogosphere.
HotShot’s inventors were a set of nerve and muscle builders –Rod MacKinnon, M.D., that shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003, and Bruce Bean, Ph.D., a Harvard professor of neurobiology. The two scientists were kayaking together for decades, and following a fateful trip off Cape Cod when they fell victim to forearm cramps, they arrived upon the neurological-function theory and Miller’s take on pickle juice and applied their own study to them.
Both Bean and Dr. MacKinnon are experts on ion channels, the compound pores which make nerves and muscles work. They thought that if pickle juice has been causing a calming reflex in the mouth and digestive tract, it might act through a set of pores known as TRP channels. Activating these would lead to nerve wracking to run down the spinal cord to stop cramping in, say, your calf.
In their own kitchens, Bean and Dr. MacKinnon experimented with components that could target TRP receptors–including extracts from ginger, cinnamon, and capsaicin (from spicy peppers). They analyzed the resulting formulation on their own families and then conducted case studies using experimental models to induce migraines similar to the big-toe shocks Miller invented.
Before long, Dr. MacKinnon, Bean, and biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal, M.D., Ph.D., founded a company, Flex Pharma, which began marketing HotShot. In bold type, its website said that the concept tying cramps to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances has been all wrong. The truth, according to HotShot, was that misfiring nerves caused cramping–and its treatment was proven to help.
Cramp specialists prickled. “There’s a couple of conflicting theories; nobody kn