When it comes to researching ways to help athletes avoid painful muscle cramping, Dr. Kevin Miller is in something of a pickle. In other words, the Central Michigan University professor has a hypothesis with a salty solution.
While it’s tempting to throw a few puns into any conversation about brine and its medicinal effects with the patient professor, his work is no joke to the athletes whose exercise-associated muscle cramps may be reduced or eliminated with the help of the pickle juice he’s researching.
“Personally, I have a bad history of muscle cramping during athletics. I played a lot of soccer during adolescence (and) I was told to eat more bananas because people thought the potassium would help,” Miller said.
Years later, Miller observed college-level athletic trainers offering bottles with both water and pickle juice to student athletes to soothe muscle cramps instead. But when he looked into research on the effects of brine on exercise-induced cramping he found limited information.
Why brine seemed to ease the pain and related effects of muscle cramps in athletes became something of an obsession for Miller, an athletic training faculty member in the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions at Central Michigan University.
For the past decade, Miller has studied the issue both professionally and as part of commissioned research for companies that produce brine solutions marketed to athletes. His work is ongoing, but Dr. Miller says he believes the way the body absorbs brine or pickle juice within the mouth may be key to its impact on exercise-associated muscle cramps.
His hypothesis is that the brine, “triggers an inhibitory oropharyngeal reflex shortly after ingestion, which reduces alpha motor neuron activity to cramping muscles.” In other words, the brine works so quickly its success can’t be attributed to simple hydration or electrolyte replenishment alone. Instead, Miller suspects it’s interacting with receptors in the mouth or throat to turn down the electrical impulses in the muscles that result in cramps.
“We’re not sure what the active ingredient is yet – is it the cucumber? Is it the vinegar? Is it the sodium? We’re still trying to figure it out,” he said.
Miller admits there are many factors to consider when it comes to muscle cramps, which occur all over the body for a variety of reasons. That’s why he’s working with volunteer athletes as well as The Pickle Juice Company of Mesquite, Texas, to come up with long-term answers.
In the meantime, he does have some words of warning for anyone who wants to try this at home: check with your doctor first. There is good reason to see a medical professional before you reach into the refrigerator and slug down a jar of pickle juice for nighttime or any other kinds of leg cramps.
“There are a lot of questions that remain with cramps and pickle juice,” Miller said. “I always tell people to consult with your doctor. See if there’s an underlying issue before you start looking at home remedies.”