The 2016 Summer Olympics are opening in Brazil later this week, stirring up memories of the severe muscle cramp suffered by world record marathoner Paula Radcliffe at the 2004 games.
That cramp left Radcliffe unable to finish her race.
But it’s not just athletes, however, who suffer from debilitating cramps.
People with diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), which can present neurological symptoms, know all too well about muscle cramps.
Relieving the pain
The recommendations on how to prevent or stop painful cramps are plentiful—from consuming bananas to downing sports drinks to getting massages.
But not all of these measures relieve cramps.
While studies have linked cramps with magnesium deficiencies, dehydration, and muscle fatigue, these conditions don’t apply to everyone.
Many people have cramps when hydrated, properly nourished, and fully rested.
After being hit with cramps while kayaking 7 miles off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, along with his friend neurobiologist Dr. Bruce Bean, found a new way to look at cramps.
Knowing he wasn’t dehydrated or needing electrolytes, the thought came to MacKinnon that his cramps must be originating from nerves and not muscles as so commonly thought.
MacKinnon started investigating the possibility of a nerve misfire that caused the cramping.
During the next decade, he turned himself into a lab rat and started playing with fire, or at least some really spicy drinks, in an effort to reset his nerve-to-muscle communications.
His theory was to modify the nervous system, including the motor neurons controlling muscles, by shocking the system back into place with spicy foods.
He surmised that this diet caused motor output to slow down by creating a sensory overload in the mouth and esophagus. Some small studies backed up his theory.
Spicy drinks can help
The result of MacKinnon and Bean’s work is a new sports drink called Hotshot.
It’s a blend of ginger, cinnamon, and Capsicum annuum (cayenne pepper) designed to reset one’s nerve-to-muscle communication by shocking the system into place.
The main ingredients in Hotshot have been part of home remedies used in the United States for years.
In the 1930s Sloan’s Liniment hit the market claiming to be "good for man and beast.” The main ingredient was cayenne pepper. Today it is sold as a topical treatment and touts temporary relief of nerve pain.
In the 1950s, Dr. D. C. Jarvis of Vermont created an elixir designed to help relieve cramps, made popular with the publication of his book, “Folk Medicine.” The elixir was made of apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper.
Taking this concept one step further was the California School of Herbal Studies, which concocted the first “Fire Cider” recipe in the early 1980’s. Based on a similar principle of shocking the system into wellness, the steeped beverage included cayenne, horseradish, ginger, and garlic.
Flex Pharma, Inc., the company that funded the development of Hotshot along with MacKinnon, recently announced the start of a phase II clinical trial for people with MS using a similar theory of shocking the nerve system to prevent muscle cramps. This trial is currently recruiting participants.
Susan Weiner, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, said the approach is intriguing, but urged some caution moving forward.
“I would say that more research needs to be done in this area, but it's very interesting and quite promising for people with MS, and people who suffer from cramping,” she told Healthline. “As a nutritionist, I'm always interested in using food to improve all aspects of health and well-being.”