By Hannah Reich Berman

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of prayer and reflection, there is much to think about. We all feel the weight of it. The holidays are also a time when one might think about the mysteries of life. It is, after all, a time of awe.

Sometimes a mystery presents itself in the form of a problem, but only the afflicted give it any thought. Recently the New York Times ran a piece about one of my mysteries, a condition that plagues many people: leg cramps. These are also known as muscle spasms. Either way, the condition is a mystery. The article was useless, since the conclusion was that nobody is certain what causes the problem or knows how to effectively treat it. It may not be a big deal to the rest of the population, but for those of us who suffer from the condition, it is one of life’s mysteries.

One is fortunate if the spasm is limited to the toes, because toe trouble comes with a warning as well as a simple solution. If the big toe suddenly separates from the other four digits and begins to point east while the remaining toes are heading due west, it means that a spasm is on its way. The solution is to stand on the wayward toes until the pain releases its grip. When all five digits come together and are once again pointing straight ahead, the session is over.

A spasm in the leg comes with no warning, but it also has a solution. I do not include the thigh here, but define the leg as anywhere between the ankle and the knee. The trouble might be in the calf or in the outer leg, and there is no way to describe the pain associated with the event. The solution is similar to the one for toe cramps. Remaining seated is not an option. One has to quickly stand on the affected leg, placing all of the body weight on that limb.

While spasms in the toes or the leg are not a fun event, they are a walk in the park compared to the worst type of spasm, the one that occurs above the knee. The pain may be in the back of the thigh, the front, or (my all-time favorite) the inside of the thigh. A spasm on the inside of the thigh often does not remain localized. It tends to travel and radiates to the hip or to the groin. If one is especially (un)lucky, it goes to both–thus rendering the sufferer helpless.

On one occasion I hit the jackpot and got bilateral spasms. This is the mother of all spasms. The inside muscles of both thighs went into spasms and found their way to the hip as well as to the groin. Until that time I had never had a death wish, but on that occasion I came perilously close. First I was afraid I was going to die and then I was afraid I wasn’t. I could not move.

But even when a muscle spasm affects only one thigh, it is a horror. Moving is not an option, but even if one manages to get himself to an upright position, standing on the affected limb is worthless. I did, however, discover one thing that helps: that is to cry and scream. This does nothing to lessen the pain, but it is something to do while waiting for it to go away.

With all due modesty, I consider myself an expert in this matter, as I am a longtime sufferer. Now and then I wonder if Hubby misses my screaming–and then I realize he probably doesn’t, because the likelihood is that he hears me! While I have never taken a survey, my best guess is that I can be heard for miles. My episodes were not much easier on Hubby than they were on me. The scenario never changed. Although motionless, I would writhe in pain and he would ask what he could do for me. The question always elicited a shriek, “Nothing! Don’t you understand? There is nothing you can do.” That was followed by more wailing. Feeling helpless, yet still determined to assist me, he would suggest taking aspirin. At that point I would screech that by the time an aspirin would kick in, the episode would be over.

For most people, these episodes occur in the middle of the night–but not always. It has also happened while I was driving! I have been known to quickly pull over to the curb, stop the car, and jump out. I have stood in one spot, leaning on the car for support, and praying for the pain to end. The stares of pedestrians or other motorists do not affect me in the slightest. This is due to the fact that I am so blinded by the pain that I don’t even see them. One time, I knew someone was watching me only because she came over to stay with me. A sufferer herself, she said, “Honey, hang in there. It will be over soon. I know because it happens to me all the time.”

Everyone thinks he has a solution to the problem. The most bizarre home remedy to come my way involved the use of mustard. A close friend told me that her sister gets these all the time and that ingesting two tablespoons of prepared mustard stops it. I don’t know about anyone else, but I keep my mustard in the kitchen, and when the pain wakes me in the middle of the night I can’t move an inch, much less get to my kitchen.

I considered leaving a jar of mustard on my night table but changed my mind. It occurred to me that I would probably get heartburn from the mustard and would end up with double trouble. Another oft-heard suggestion is that sufferers should take quinine pills, but my doctor vehemently forbade it and insisted that this is a very dangerous thing to do.

He hasn’t helped to rid me of the spasms, but at least he is wise enough to admit that he isn’t certain what causes the problem and that he has no real idea of how to prevent it. His only suggestion when I mentioned the quinine was to say that drinking tonic water might help. It contains quinine but in amounts that are not dangerous. I tried. But the taste was so horrible that I couldn’t get the liquid down. For a brief moment, however, it took my mind off the pain as I wondered how and why anyone would ever order a gin and tonic. Ah, another of life’s mysteries!

This problem is by no means exclusively mine. A great many people are blessed with it. And we all handle it pretty much the same way: we moan, we groan, and we pray for the pain to end. We also pray that it doesn’t happen when we’re driving on a highway or while sitting in shul!

One of the doctors who contributed to that piece in the New York Times made a laughable suggestion. His idea was for sufferers to take two aspirin tablets before going to bed. Remind me never to use that doctor! The best doctors are the ones who admit that they don’t know what it is and acknowledge that they can’t offer much help. That’s the way it is. v

Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at or 516-902-3733.

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