Sometimes we come across a home remedy that seems so preposterous, it hardly deserves a second thought. That happened to us nearly a decade ago when readers of this column started telling us that they were putting soap under their bedsheets to prevent nighttime leg cramps.
One reader was very cautious about trying this approach: "Under the cover of darkness (so my husband, who is an M.D., wouldn't see), I slipped a bar of soap under the sheet on my side of the bed. For two nights I continued to have mild leg cramps, but by the third night, they were gone. I have not had them since."
Through the years we have heard from hundreds of people who have been astonished that this simple remedy helped ease a chronic problem for which there was no other treatment. Others were skeptical, suggesting that any benefits were due to the placebo effect.
Because the soap story seems so implausible, many doctors scoff. So do some readers: "You folks are ridiculous, superstitious and ignorant. How can you recommend a bar of soap under the bottom sheet for leg cramps? It's just plain dumb. Please spare us such silliness."
Others started wondering whether there might be a plausible explanation for this phenomenon. A chemist at North Carolina State University analyzed the outgassing of several brands of soap mentioned frequently in our reader testimonials. He discovered a volatile compound used as a fragrance common to the most popular soaps.
An anesthesiologist was intrigued enough by soap testimonials to conduct some experiments using crushed Ivory soap. Dr. Yon Doo Ough and his colleagues placed their homemade skin patches over muscle cramps and found that the pain was relieved (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July 2008).
Ough speculated that the scent of the soap was responsible for the benefit. He tested soap-scented oil (SSO) in a skin patch for the relief of fibromyalgia pain. He reported: "It was found that the SSO skin patch consistently and adequately relieved muscular pain" (Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, September 2008).
Although most people associate the soap remedy with nighttime leg cramps, Ough reports that a soap skin patch helps with muscle spasms such as menstrual cramps or intestinal cramps. We have even heard from people who find that holding a bar of soap is an effective way to banish hand cramps:
"I am prone to very painful hand and finger cramps. When they strike, I massage them or run hot and cold water over the hands, but nothing works but time.
"Today my left hand was in terrible pain that wouldn't cease. I went to the Internet and looked up 'Home Remedies for Hand Cramps.' I saw the suggestion on your website, PeoplesPharmacy.com, about holding a bar of soap and immediately opened a new bar. When I held it in my aching hand, POOF — the pain went away within seconds. It seemed like a miracle."
Until Ough's imaginative research, there was no explanation for this effect. Now we have some science to suggest how the soap might be working to ease muscle cramps and pain. The herbal oils in the soap scent may have antispasmodic action. We don't know of a more affordable remedy for such common problems.
Q: My 93-year-old mother was in assisted living. She was having stomach pain, not eating much and losing weight. When I checked her meds, I found that the heart drug digoxin might be causing the problem and asked her doctor to change the medication.
She was taken off digoxin with no ill effects. Her stomach pain went away, and she gradually gained back some weight. She is now 96 and doing well. Why aren't doctors more careful with older patients?
A: Sometimes doctors don't have the specialized knowledge to recognize that a digoxin dose that was appropriate at 65 or 70 may be excessive in a 90-year-old. As people age, liver and kidney function tend to decline. That makes people sensitive to many medications. Loss of appetite, nausea and weight loss are classic symptoms of digoxin overdose, along with visual disturbances.
Anyone with an aging relative needs to be extra vigilant. Our book "Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them" offers a chapter on keeping seniors safe.
Q: Cholesterol-lowering drugs such as simvastatin and pravastatin make my muscles weak and my brain foggy. Without statins, my brain works fine, but my cholesterol climbs.
My doctor agrees that I can't tolerate statins, but he hasn't offered me anything but Welchol. I eat no red meat and almost no fat. My cholesterol is over 230, and that is too high. What else can you recommend?
A: Perhaps you need a little more fat in your diet. Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from fish (salmon, sardines, tuna) or nuts (walnuts) can help control cholesterol and fight dangerous inflammation in the blood vessels. That may be almost as important in preventing a heart attack as lowering your cholesterol.
The Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health we are sending you has many such suggestions for nondrug approaches to lowering cholesterol, including some you may not have considered, such as grape, pomegranate or red grapefruit juice. Supplements containing niacin, psyllium fiber or magnesium also may be helpful.
Anyone who would like a copy of the guide can send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (65 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. C-8, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 from our website: www.peoplespharmacy.com.