After an ingrown toenail procedure, treatment of a foreign body wound, muscle aches, ankle sprains, swelling, and, it would seem, just about every other foot and ankle ailment, the question is often asked whether or not Epsom salt would help. And my stock answer is “I don’t know, but my mother recommends it, and so does yours so it must be good.” This being the week after Mother’s Day, we are on a quest to find out whether this – along with contracting herpes from a public toilet seat, the benefits of a carnivorous diet, and the utility of a college education – is just a maternal myth.
First, a little background. Epsom salt (it’s actually singular, salts is just wrong) is derived from a spring in Epsom, England, and is essentially magnesium sulfate in water. For decades the mineral was used as an addition to a bath, and thought to have therapeutic properties for treatment of muscle pain, preeclampsia in pregnancy, and as a laxative. And it is an effective remedy for the latter two conditions when ingested internally, however it may be less than effective when used for muscle and tendon inflammation. Magnesium is an important element which our bodies need for various functions, but it is not clear that soaking in magnesium salts, even in really large quantities, will cause the magnesium to be absorbed into the body.
For the conditions that are most commonly seen in my NYC podiatry office, such as tendonitis, ingrown toenails and splinter injuries, the benefits of Epsom salt are much less clear. Soaking in warm water and anything, or just plain warm water feels pretty good, and is likely just as effective as adding Epsom salt. There is a theory that the salt in the water will cause free fluid to leak from cells, thereby drawing out foreign bodies, such as splinters or glass fragments that are stuck in the skin. However it is just a theory, and there is no real evidence of water leaking from cells in the body when soaking in water with a high salt concentration. For instance, if salty water caused a loss of free water from the cells of the body, those who swim in the ocean or Dead Sea would emerge like old prunes from the water.
So, we have seen some of the benefits of Epsom salt, which may not apply to NYC podiatry patients. There’s probably no harm in soaking in Epsom salts, it feels pretty good, and it makes Mom happy, so no reason not to do it; it’s just good to be realistic about the expected benefits. But as a cure all, probably not so much, as detailed here. Sorry Mom, but I do still love you and think you’re otherwise brilliant. And I’ll leave the other maternal myths for another blog.
See you in the office.