Humans are land-based creatures, but some of us can’t resist challenging one of the basic elements of nature: water. 

After every exertion, there should be a period of rest, relaxation, and recovery. Professional swimmers may not take adequate time for this, which is why some may experience muscle cramps. These elite athletes are often pushed by their swimming coaches to the absolute limits of their bodies, which includes being fed substances to help them recover from muscle cramps.

One of substances being used by some swimming coaches for muscle cramps is CBD (cannabidiol), a hemp extract without psychoactive properties. CBD is an active ingredient in two government-approved drugs, one for muscle seizures that occur in epilepsy (Epidiolex), and another that alleviates multiple sclerosis spasms (Sativex). 

What is a Cramp?

Muscle activity in the human body is controlled through nerve impulses. When we move, the brain sends impulses through the nerves to the muscles, commanding them to contract and relax in rapid succession. If muscles contract and relax too fast and for too long in an unprepared body, we experience cramps, which are involuntary contractions that can’t be relaxed.

It’s the involuntary part that makes cramps so unnerving, as it were. The person experiencing prolonged cramps may feel helpless. If that person is swimming, cramps may cause them to panic or just give up on trying to swim back to land. If these cramps occur throughout the body, there is a potential danger to the person even on land. Why do cramps happen and why can’t the body relax itself enough after exertion?

What Causes Cramps?

A cramp is an imbalance in the nerve activity in the muscles. Neurons are meant to be self-balancing, meaning they should be able to reduce their activity as needed to avoid the imbalance and cramping. If an activity continues too fast for too long, nerves constantly activate and can trigger a cramp.

As the nerves activate, they trigger the release of streams of chemicals that travel to the muscles and cause them to contract. These streams can, over time, become so overwhelming that muscles essentially drown in activators, leading to a cramp. The equivalent of dry land in our muscles would be chemicals known as endocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids are chemicals that typically release when we achieve something significant, such as swimming faster or longer than ever before. In a sense, our body and mind are constantly nudging us to challenge nature to keep achieving great things and keep feeling blissful. This system can malfunction for all sorts of reasons, leading to many people being more prone to cramps. The immediate solution appears to be to use external cannabinoids, such as those found in cannabis, to top up the missing endocannabinoids.

We don’t always need external cannabinoids since we’re naturally equipped with a balancing system we’re all too familiar with: pain. When exertion may lead to tissue damage, a different set of nerves trigger, making us feel pain. We can ignore pain if we feel enough positive sensations, which leads to what’s often termed as a “second wind”, or the sudden burst of strength that comes when we’re completely exhausted. This sudden burst of strength comes from our internal system and two special receptors.

Our internal system that can create feelings of euphoria has, among other things, two types of receptors: CB1 and CB2, or cannabinoid receptors 1 and 2, that trigger when endocannabinoids are released. If they aren’t released, we can experience symptoms such as cramps, chronic pain, and other changes to the body that lower our quality of life.

The above description of our internal bliss system is a very simplified one, mostly because it hasn’t been extensively researched. It can still provide a good picture of how our nerves and muscles work together to help us temp fate and feel pleasure after we’ve survived. You can now see why people would want to use CBD for swim cramps. It seems so plausible and makes so much sense, so why aren’t more doctors prescribing CBD for swim cramps?

Doctors Care for Critical Cases

Doctors use a system known as “triage”, which means patients can be placed in one of five categories:

  • Immediate

  • Urgent

  • Delayed

  • Expectant

  • Dead

Triage makes sense since it allows doctors to focus their attention and resources on the most severe cases, where they can make the biggest difference, such as in cases of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Compared to epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, problems such as swim cramps are considered a minor issue that wouldn’t normally justify the full attention and resources of doctors. If you have swim cramps, you might be expected to simply walk them off so you may be tempted to diagnose or treat them yourself.

One problem with dealing with swim cramps on your own is that doctors tend to abhor self-diagnosis and self-treatment. An incorrect diagnosis and/or trying to treat swim cramps yourself may risk a severe case, which might cause another drain on doctors’ attention and resources that may be better used on more severe issues, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. 

Cannabinoids

Epilepsy has a long and remarkable history of seizing people, including powerful historical figures like Julius Caesar. Epilepsy is a misfiring of nerves that can lead to long, crippling seizures, during which the afflicted may experience overwhelmed brain circuits, muscle cramps, and even frothing at the mouth. Multiple sclerosis is an affliction that can cause nerve damage and affect the eyes, the brain, and the muscles. Seizures from both epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are increasingly being treated with cannabinoid-containing medication, such as Epidiolex and Sativex, that affect the CB1 and CB2 receptors to alleviate the spasms. 

A 2016 German meta-study titled “Evidence for the efficacy and effectiveness of THC-CBD oromucosal spray in symptom management of patients with spasticity due to multiple sclerosis” looked at 1,600 multiple sclerosis patients, 80% of which had spasms due to nerve damage, and studied how they might be helped by cannabinoid-containing medication. The four most used non-cannabinoid medications to alleviate spasms are tizanidine, baclofen, dantrolene and gabapentin, each of which have side effects such as fatigue, drowsiness, and irritability. The meta-study states, “There is limited evidence of the effectiveness and efficacy of these four anti-spasticity drugs.” 

Low efficacy of these four drugs is one reason for the reignited interest in cannabinoids, namely THC and CBD. The study goes on to say, “It has been shown that the CB1 receptors...are the main cannabinoid target to deliver an antispastic effect”. THC mostly triggers CB1 receptors, but CBD mostly triggers CB2 receptors; the two balance each other out, allowing for a greater dose of THC without side effects. The real revelation in the meta-study is this quote regarding CBD: “Studies have also shown that it can have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, antioxidant and anti-psychotropic effects at different doses”. THC and CBD “act synergistically” to reduce the pain in muscles, with tests on live mice showing that “THC-CBD dose dependently reduced spasticity to the same extent as baclofen”.

This German study shows why swimming coaches might be willing to take a risk and provide their proteges with CBD for swim cramps. However, although CBD may be effective, we cannot definitively state that it is because we simply lack concrete evidence that CBD works for swim cramps. 

Conclusion

Having muscle cramps can feel like you’re being betrayed by your own body. One moment you’re in full control of your body and everything is going swimmingly (pun intended) but the very next moment you’re ambushed by stabbing pain in your muscles. The longer the pain lasts, the more it may feel like betrayal and a twisting of the knife. You may then think to yourself, “You too, biceps?”

We may have a long way to go before doctors start routinely prescribing CBD for swim cramps, which they may understandably view as a comparatively minor issue. Doctors are more concerned with severe illnesses such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, but may be more likely to offer CBD as a potential cramp treatment if continued research offers positive results. Until doctors start prescribing CBD for swim cramps, you may choose to take the initiative and try some on your own, such as our CBD Oil or CBD Balm