Jul 14, 2016
An End to Muscle Cramps?

Muscle cramps affect athletes at all levels. The pain of a cramp can debilitate even the best and most physically fit athlete out there. For as long as people have been playing sports, it has been thought that muscles tighten up and stop fully functioning when they are not receiving enough hydration or nutrients. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, thanks to the efforts of Nobel Prize winner Rob MacKinnon, muscle cramps are being looked at in a different way.

Even when the body is properly hydrated and full of electrolytes cramping can occur. MacKinnon, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003 and studies molecular neurobiology and biophysics at Rockefeller University, found this out the hard way in 2006 when his arms and hands severally cramped as he was kayaking. That experience began a 10-year journey to find out what really causes muscles to cramp. MacKinnon started with the hypothesis that impulses from the nervous system might have misfired, resulting in cramps. He hoped that by regulating excessive firing of motor neurons, cramps could be avoided.

Along with the help of his friend and colleague Bruce Bean, a neurobiologist at Harvard, MacKinnon discovered that ingesting spicy or pungent food and drink could overload the nervous system in a way that prevents muscle cramps from occurring. After using himself as a test-subject for roughly 10 years, MacKinnon recently conducted a series of randomized tests that have shown ingesting spicy food and drink does in fact reduce the likelihood of cramping. It appears that when the taste buds and throat experience a type of sensory overload, this effectively reduces the amount of motor neurons being sent to muscles.

As Dr. MacKinnon explains, “The strong sensory input causes inhibition of the motor output.”

One of the issues facing the study was the question of whether cramping may be a natural safety mechanism that the brain employs to protect the body. But after further research, MacKinnon concluded that there are no health benefits to muscle cramps, and that they are actually the result of imperfect messages being sent from the brain.

As testing continues, MacKinnon hopes to develop a better way to administer a placebo to some of his subjects. The major obstacle of collecting accurate data in this area is the fact that taste and spiciness are crucial, so giving a person a sugary substitute and telling them it’s the real thing is not very convincing.

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