The Buzz: Debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis for years, actor James Coburn attributes his comeback-capped by a recent Academy Award-to methylsulfonylmethane, commonly called MSM. Several companies (Jarrow, Natural Balance) sell MSM by itself. Others (Future Biotics, TwinLab) combine it with vitamin C, glucosamine or other reputed anti-arthritis compounds. A new book, The Miracle of MSM (G. P. Putnam Sons, 1999), touts it for relief of arthritis (both rheumatoid and osteo) and other inflammatory conditions, as well as for sports injuries, back pain, constipation and allergies.
The Basics: MSM is a nontoxic, odorless sulfur compound found in the human body. It is a breakdown product of DMSO (dimethylsulfoxide), an industrial solvent derived from trees that also has medicinal uses. (DMSO is a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for interstitial cystitis, a serious, chronic bladder condition, but is also prescribed for unapproved uses.) Proponents say MSM has benefits similar to DMSO, but without its fishy odor.
The Bonus: Animal studies attest to MSM’s biologic activity and even suggest cancer protection, says Stanley Jacob, M.D., a pioneer of MSM research who has used it to treat thousands over 20 years at his DMSO clinic at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. One unpublished study found marked improvement in the symptoms of 16 people with osteoarthritis who took 2,250 milligrams of MSM daily for six weeks compared to those taking placebos. Jacob believes MSM blocks pain impulses and histamine receptors, reduces inflammation, promotes blood flow and reduces muscle spasms.
The Bust: Most of the evidence behind MSM is extrapolated from research on DMSO. There are no published double-blind studies on MSM. Jacob himself admits the need for more research. Some of MSM’s claimed benefits are based on relieving a sulfur deficiency, a controversial condition. More important, we think, is knowing that MSM has blood-thinning action. Do not take it if you are on an anticoagulant like aspirin or Coumadin (warfarin) unless you check with your doctor first.
EN’s Advice: MSM may well prove to be the aspirin of the next millennium, perhaps with fewer side effects. But cure-all claims swirling around MSM trigger our suspicions. Until more proof surfaces, MSM’s credibility rides on the coattails of DMSO, unproven assumptions, testimonials and the work of very few researchers. That doesn’t mean MSM doesn’t work; it just means evidence is scanty right now. On the plus side, MSM does appear to be safe and relatively inexpensive, for those wishing to try it. If you suffer chronic pain, however, EN recommends visiting a doctor before taking any supplements, especially something like MSM that might mask the pain but not cure the underlying cause.
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