Muscle cramps during training or an event can range in severity from uncomfortable to debilitating, and theories abound regarding methods of avoiding and/or treating them. Some of these are backed by solid science, while others are myths and misconceptions. One increasingly popular “home remedy” for muscle cramping is pickle juice; it’s not only high in sodium (a deficit of which may be one cause of muscle cramps, as sodium is critical to normal muscle function), it’s also acidic. Some exercise physiologists wonder whether the acid could have metabolic consequences or speed hydration.
A number of studies have examined the use of pickle juice in athletic settings. A compositional analysis (Dale et al) looked at the sodium content of various commercial pickle juices. Values ranged from about 220-390 mg of sodium per serving, where osmolarity (a measure of sodium per unit water) in all cases was much higher than that recommended by exercise physiologists for use as a rehydration fluid. The concerns raised by this study were twofold: first, that such high concentrations and net quantities of sodium could have negative physiological consequences, and second, that the risk of these consequences was not mitigated by clear scientific evidence of pickle juice’s ability to relieve cramps.
Since the compositional analysis, a few additional studies have looked at pickle juice specifically with regard to cramp-relieving capability. A 2009 study found that individuals who consumed pickle juice prior to being subjected to an electrically-stimulated muscle cramp experienced a significantly shorter cramp (by about 50 seconds) than those who did not consume pickle juice (Miller). The pickle juice did not appear to affect concentrations of sodium or other substances within the blood plasma quickly enough to account for its apparent cramp-relieving effects, suggesting that if pickle juice was, in fact, responsible for helping to relieve cramps, the effect was probably not metabolic. While these data sound promising, there are two major limiters associated with this study (which was, incidentally, dissertation work that appears never to have been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal). The first limiter is that the study was not blinded; subjects either consumed pickle juice or plain water. If the pickle juice-consuming subjects believed the juice would help relieve cramps, they might have experienced a placebo effect (cramp duration was self-reported). The second limiter is that the cramps were electrically-stimulated, meaning that the results can’t be generalized to exercise-induced cramps, the mechanisms and causes of which are not yet completely understood.
A third study (Miller et al) examined effects of pickle juice consumption upon gastric emptying (stomach emptying), which is a concern because athletes — particularly distance runners — can be plagued by “stomach sloshing” as a result of delayed gastric emptying following fluid consumption. The results of this study suggest that pickle juice consumption does result in delayed gastric emptying, likely because of the high concentrations of salt and acid. This has the potential to be a major negative side effect associated with pickle juice.
Base upon the existing data, it does not appear that scientific evidence supports pickle juice consumption for prevention or alleviation of cramps.
Have you tried (or would you try) pickle juice for cramps?
Dale et al. A Compositional Analysis of a Common Acetic Acid Solution With Practical Implications for Ingestion. J Athl Train. 2003 Mar;38(1):57-61.
Miller, K. Plasma and EMG responses during an electrically-induced muscle cramp and following pickle juice and water ingestion. Dissertation, Brigham Young University, 2009.
Miller et al. Gastric emptying after pickle-juice ingestion in rested, euhydrated humans. J Athl Train. 2010 Nov-Dec;45(6):601-8.