Mustard For Leg Cramps and Burns, Myth or Fact?

2013-09-11 07:16

For some time, people have been spreading stories about how you can use mustard for leg cramps, burns, and back pain. Like many such health claims, the tales begin with a kernel of truth that becomes elaborated upon and distorted with each telling. So what about mustard?

Can mustard help your leg cramps?

First of all, what is mustard? A recipe for simple yellow mustard includes water, vinegar, mustard seeds, turmeric, and salt. Two teaspoons of mustard seed are an excellent source of the mineral selenium (which may help with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, among other conditions), and a good to fair source of magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, manganese, and phosphorus.

Football players and other athletes are sometimes told by their coaches to swallow a few spoons of mustard to fight off leg cramps. One reason mustard may be effective for this purpose is because the condiment contains acetic acid (in vinegar), which prompts the body to produce more acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that prompts muscles to work.

For many people, however, leg cramps occur at night while they sleep and not while engaged in sports. Such cramps may be caused by dehydration (which can be associated with diarrhea, insufficient fluid intake, excessive sweating), a deficiency of calcium, potassium, and/or magnesium, or for reasons unknown.

So if you frequently experience leg cramps during the night, should you sleep with a squeeze bottle of mustard under your pillow? Anecdotal evidence says you may, as a search of the Internet finds many people who claim a few good squirts of mustard during the night sends their cramps off into the darkness.

Could it be the acetic acid or the magnesium in mustard that does the trick? Mustard does contain a fair amount of magnesium, which has been shown to help relieve leg cramps. In fact, one way to ward off these painful cramps is to be sure to include enough magnesium in your diet or to take magnesium supplements.

According to a recent report in the American Family Physician, nighttime leg cramps occur in up to 60 percent of adults. The authors noted that exercise, stretching or “medications such as magnesium, calcium channel blockers, carisoprodol, or vitamin B12” can be helpful.

Mustard for leg cramps may provide some relief, and if you try it and it doesn’t work, no harm is done. If it does, it may be for one of the reasons mentioned or it may be a placebo effect. Either way, ingesting yellow mustard (forget about spreading it on your legs!) is an inexpensive and safe attempt at managing leg cramps.

Read about natural remedies for muscle cramps

Other reported benefits of mustard
Can mustard be used to treat burns? You may be familiar with another natural remedy for burns—aloe vera gel—but here’s an example of how applying mustard topically rather than ingesting it may provide a health benefit.

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If you look for published scientific proof that slathering on the yellow stuff will relieve the pain associated with minor burns, good luck. However, you will find many anecdotal stories about the wonders of mustard for burns.

Overall, the general consensus appears to be that mild to moderate burns—but not severe ones—are likely to respond to a layer of mustard and a covering with gauze or a bandage. Such a mustard treatment reportedly results in quick pain relief, reduced risk of blistering, and rapid healing.

Use of mustard to relieve lower back pain has a kernel of truth, but that truth lies in the mustard seed rather than the yellow condiment. If you rub mustard seed extract on your back (or other aching areas for that matter), you may experience some relief. (Be sure to test a small area of skin first to be sure you don’t react to the extract. Skin reaction is rare.)

That’s because mustard seed extract provides a warming effect, which can increase blood circulation to the affected site, loosen muscles, and feel good, but it certainly is no cure. Another approach is a mustard plaster or poultice.

This folk remedy was once commonly used to relieve neck and back pain, sciatica, arthritis, and neuralgia. A mustard plaster can be made by combining 4 tablespoons of flour, 2 tablespoons of dry mustard, and enough warm water to make a paste.

10 Tips to Relieve Sciatic Nerve Pain

To use a mustard plaster, spread the plaster on half of a piece of 100 percent flannel and fold the other half over. Apply the plaster package to the hurting area, cover with a thick cloth or blanket, and let it stay for up to 20 minutes or less if the skin turns red. Like mustard seed extract, a mustard plaster enhances blood circulation.

Should you try mustard for leg cramps, burns, and back pain? Or should you stick to using it as a condiment?

One cannot take the lack of scientific studies to mean mustard does not work, while one also should realize that what works for one person does not always provide the same results for another. Ultimately, if you want to know whether mustard works for leg cramps, burns, or back pain, you can simply try it.

More natural remedies for muscle cramps

Allen RE, Kirby KA. Nocturnal leg cramps. American Family Physician 2012 Aug 15; 86(4): 350-55

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