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Ain't no cure for the muscle-cramp blues: The sun slowly sets on quinine

On June 8, 1962 - the ninth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation - Commander Walter Edward Whitehead, the bearded pitchman for Schweppes quinine water, was named a member of the Order of the British Empire. (In a fitting display of royal symmetry, a certain mister Gilbey, purveyor of the eponymous gin, was knighted in the same ceremony.)

Those of a certain age will recall television commercials featuring Cdr. Whitehead extolling the virtues of the beverage. It wasn't hard to imagine that stately gentleman in his younger days, charging through the jungles of one colony or another. Armed with quinine an empire ascended, malaria be damned.

Alas, like the British Empire, quinine has fallen on hard times. Although the bitter substance was indeed the first treatment for malaria - and the only effective one for 300 years - it became largely outmoded with the advent of better drugs after World War II.

Still, until quite recently quinine was also the front-line treatment for a dreaded scourge of the sendentary classes: muscle cramps. They strike without warning.

Most cases of muscle cramps never get reported to public health authorities, so it’s difficult to say how common they are. But you probably know someone who’s had them. You’ve probably had them, too. And the older you get, the more likely you’re having one right now.

But according to a just published Stanford study whose senior author was neurologist Yuen So, MD, PhD, quinine's not such a great choice for muscle cramps, either. Not that it's wholly ineffective - it can reduce symptoms by one-third to one-half - but that comes with a 1-in-25 chance of serious side effects: for example, hematologic disorders. Better not to mess with it unless the cramps are really bad and nothing else works.

In fact, at the moment there are no really useful, tried-and-tested prescriptions for this common disorder, the study found. Quinine itself, once freely available over the counter, has been taken off the shelves. (Forget about quinine water. You'd have to drink a few liters of it to get any efficacy for muscle cramps, and by the time you were done you'd probably have cramps in another important organ.)

So, paraphrasing Eddie Cochran, there ain't no cure for the muscle-cramp blues. There's a great prescription for getting them, though: Just sit at your desk all day long reading technical articles, combing the Web for news updates, and blogging your brains out.

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