It’s helpful to break this into separate arguments.
1. Does Creatine Cause Dehydration?
This is a very common question, but unfortunately it seems that the most popular answer is incorrect. Most people will tell you, almost as though it’s common knowledge, that creatine causes dehydration. However, several studies are showing that this is not necessarily the case.
Dr. Michael Webster, at the University of Southern Mississippi, performed a study to determine the effects of creatine. 16 men performed interval workouts, followed by 75 minutes of continuous exercise, designed to facilitate loss of body water. The group was split and supplemented with either creatine monohydrate or a placebo. At the end of the study, the researchers found that, “creatine supplementation does not appear to negatively impact hydration status.”
2 additional studies performed at Arkansas State University, which we will get into later, also concluded that creatine does not incite dehydration. Furthermore, the International Society of Sports Nutrition lists “cramping, dehydration and/or altered electrolyte status” as one of the most common myths purported about creatine supplementation.
Despite the prevailing evidence, many people will read this with skepticism, and adhere to popular opinion. But, even if you believe that creatine does cause dehydration, does the theory make sense?
2. Does Dehydration Cause Muscle Cramps?
The second premise to consider is that dehydration causes muscle cramps. As we blogged about 2 weeks ago, the likely answer is “No.” Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between hydration or electrolyte levels and muscle cramps. In fact, one landmark study performed by Dr. Martin Schwellnus actually showed that ultra marathon runners who cramped were actually more-hydrated than those who did not cramp.
A 2005 lab study, performed at the University of Alabama, suggested the same thing. Based on their study, the researchers came to the following conclusion, “It appears that dehydration and electrolyte loss are not the sole causes of EAMCs [exercise-associated muscle cramps], because 69% of the subjects experienced EAMCs when they were hydrated and supplemented with electrolytes.”
However, just because dehydration doesn’t necessarily cause muscle cramps, it is still possible that some other aspect in creatine may be causing muscle cramps. So we pose one final question:
Does Creatine Cause Muscle Cramps?
Again, the prevailing science says “No.” First, let’s go back to the 2 studies mentioned above, which were led by Dr. Michael Greenwood, at Arkansas State University. In the first study, Division IA football players were split into 2 groups and supplemented either with or without creatine for 3 seasons, from 1998-2000. Throughout the study, researchers tracked the players for cramps, dehydration, muscle tightness, muscle strains, non-contact joint injuries, contact injuries, and illness. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that, “Creatine supplementation does not appear to increase the incidence of injury or cramping in Division IA college football players.”
While this research was being conducted, an additional study was performed on 72 of the football players during the 1999 season. 38 participants volunteered to take creatine, while the remaining 34 participants did not. All 72 subjects were tracked for the same maladies as above. In this study, researchers found that creatine users had significantly less cramping, heat illness or dehydration, muscle tightness, muscle strains, and total injuries than non-creatine users. There was no significant difference in non-contact joint injuries, contact injuries, or illness.
Dr. Greenwood did not limit his studies to football players. In November, 2003, he published a similar study relating to baseball players in the Journal of Exercise Physiology. The entire study can be downloaded here, but what’s important are the conclusions that his research team came to:
Results of the present study indicated that creatine use among Division I baseball players training and competing in very hot and humid environments does not appear to increase the incidence of dehydration, cramping, and/or muscle injury in comparison to athletes who do not take creatine. Moreover, that the athletes’ did not report a consistent pattern of perceived negative side effects as a result of the creatine supplementation protocol. Within the scope of this study, these findings add to the growing body of evidence indicating that creatine supplementation apparently does not increase the incidence of anecdotally reported detrimental side effects and/or cause unknown health problems.