How Does Epsom Salt Relax Muscles?

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Can Epsom salt relieve tight muscles? There's no reason to think so.
Can Epsom salt relieve tight muscles? There's no reason to think so. (Image: Photodisc/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Many people are familiar with the folk remedy of using an Epsom salt bath to relieve muscle pain or tightness. In fact, depending on how old you are, your own doctor might have recommended it at some point. However, as science writer Paul Ingraham explains, there's currently no evidence to suppose that an Epsom salt bath does anything at all to relax muscles or otherwise relieve aches and pains.

Lack of Evidence

Ingraham, too, had heard folklore about Epsom salt baths, but when he actually reviewed the scientific literature in 2006, he was surprised to find absolutely no evidence of any effect. What's more, because his Epsom salt article on the Pain Science website is among the most popular online resources on the topic, he's continually updating the article. As of the date of publication, he has found no evidence of an effect.

Unofficial Explanations

In evaluating the many online claims and explanations with regard to how Epsom salt baths are supposed to work, Ingraham debunks the two most popular notions that it occurs by "detoxifying" the body, or by "osmosis." There is no known scientific way for either of these things to occur in an Epsom salt bath -- and no evidence that either process is happening.

What Does Work, Then?

As the Columbia University Medical Center website explains, tight muscles -- whether they occur chronically for unknown reasons or as the result of a sudden injury or cramping during exercise -- are caused by muscle spasms. The site recommends several possible home treatments for muscle spasms. Sudden cramping can often be relieved by stretching the muscle. If the tightness is caused by an injury, the CUMC recommends ice packs for the first 2 to 3 days for 20 to 30 minutes at 3- to 4-hour intervals. For longer-term spasms, such as the kind that occur with a chronically tight back, the CUMC recommends moist heat for 20 to 30 minutes several times a day. This could include a hot bath, with or without Epsom salt; some people just like the way Epsom salt makes the water feel. Visiting a massage therapist can also be helpful.

When to See the Doctor

If your tight or spasming muscles are severe, or if the problems persist despite rest and home treatment, see your doctor for advice. It's possible that she can recommend specialized stretching exercises, physical therapy or, in some cases, even medications to relieve the tight muscles.

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