Quinine for nocturnal leg cramps: a meta-analysis including unpublished data

J Gen Intern Med. 1998 Sep;13(9):600-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.1998.00182.x.


Objective: With respect to the use of quinine for the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps, to determine whether the findings of a previously performed meta-analysis of published data are altered with the addition of unpublished data, and whether publication bias is present in this area.

Design: A meta-analysis of eight (four published and four unpublished) randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, seven of which had a crossover design.

Setting: Randomized trials that were available as of July 1997.

Subjects: Ambulatory patients (659) who suffered from regular nocturnal leg cramps.

Main results: When individual patient data from all crossover studies were pooled, persons had 3.60 (95% confidence interval [CI] 2.15, 5.05) fewer cramps in a 4-week period when taking quinine compared with placebo. This compared with an estimate of 8.83 fewer cramps (95% CI 4.16, 13.49) from pooling published studies alone. The corresponding relative risk reductions were 21% (95% CI 12%, 30%) and 43% (95% CI 21%, 65%), respectively. Compared with placebo, the use of quinine was associated with an increased incidence of side effects, particularly tinnitus. Publication bias is present in the reporting of the efficacy of quinine for this indication, as almost all published studies reported larger estimates of its efficacy than did unpublished studies.

Conclusions: This study confirms that quinine is efficacious in the prevention of nocturnal leg cramps. However, its benefit may not be as large as reported from the pooling of published studies alone. Given the side effect profile of quinine, nonpharmacologic therapy (e.g., regular passive stretching of the affected muscle) is the best first-line treatment. For persons who find this ineffective and whose quality of life is significantly affected, a trial of quinine is warranted. Prescribing physicians must closely monitor the risks and benefits in individual patients. Publication bias is present in this area even though there is controversy about the role of quinine in the treatment of leg cramps. To minimize the possibility of this bias, persons performing medication-related meta-analyses should seek high-quality unpublished data from drug regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Leg
  • Muscle Cramp / drug therapy*
  • Muscle Relaxants, Central / therapeutic use*
  • Quinine / therapeutic use*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk Assessment
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Muscle Relaxants, Central
  • Quinine