Vol. 2, #9
March 5, 2005

Q:  What is DMSO and what is it used for? - Layperson
A:  DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide, C2H6OS , molar mass: 78.14 g/mol.) is a colorless, slightly oily liquid that is and, has been used primarily used as an industrial solvent since 1953.
DMSO is derived from trees as a manufacturing by-product from the processing of paper. Metabolites (breakdown products) of DMSO, such as the sulfide and sulfone forms, are naturally present in the human body. However, the role of these in the body is not clear.

DMSO occurs naturally in many plants icluding vegetables, grains, fruits and even in some animal products.

A second-generation DMSO, methylsulfonylmethane or MSM (see Methylsulfonylmethane), which is a metabolite of DMSO, is marketed as a dietary supplement. DMSO itself is not allowed for use as a dietary supplement.

The history of DMSO as a pharmaceutical began in 1961, when Dr. Stanley Jacob was head of the organ transplant program at Oregon Health Sciences University. It all started when he first picked up a bottle of the colorless liquid. While investigating its potential as a preservative for organs, he quickly discovered that it penetrated the skin quickly and deeply without damaging it. He was intrigued. Thus began his lifelong investigation of the drug.

DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), as a therapeutic principle, was first introduced to the scientific community in 1963 by a research team headed by Dr. Jacob.

The first quality that struck Dr. Jacob about the drug was its ability to pass through membranes, an ability that has been verified by numerous subsequent researchers. DMSO's ability to do this varies proportionally with its strength--up to a 90 percent solution. From 70 percent to 90 percent has been found to be the most effective strength across the skin, and, oddly, performance drops with concentrations higher than 90 percent. Lower concentrations are sufficient to cross other membranes. Thus, 15 percent DMSO will easily penetrate the bladder.

In addition, DMSO can carry other drugs with it across membranes. It is more successful ferrying some drugs, such as morphine sulfate, penicillin, steroids, and cortisone, than others, such as insulin. What it will carry depends on the molecular weight, shape, and electrochemistry of the molecules. This property would enable DMSO to act as a new drug delivery system that would lower the risk of infection occurring whenever skin is penetrated.

DMSO perhaps has been used most widely as a topical analgesic, in a 70 percent DMSO, 30 percent water solution. Laboratory studies suggest that DMSO cuts pain by blocking peripheral nerve C fibers.3 Several clinical trials have demonstrated its effectiveness, although in one trial, no benefit was found.6 Burns, cuts, and sprains have been treated with DMSO. Relief is reported to be almost immediate, lasting up to 6 hours. A number of sports teams and Olympic athletes have used DMSO, although some have since moved on to other treatment modalities. When administration ceases, so do the effects of the drug.

DMSO became prescriptive for humans in the USSR in 1971. Since that time, it has been widely used in the USSR alone and in combinations. Currently DMSO is employed in the therapy of various musculo-skeletal problems in Russia. Dr. Balabanova of the Moscow Institute of Rheumatology estimates that about 50 percent of the Russian arthritic population receives DMSO as a part of their therapy. There are more than one hundred articles in the world's literature relating to DMSO and arthritis. These include both clinical results and mechanism of action. Among the well-documented pharmacologic properties of DMSO include analgesia, anti-inflammation, softening of scar tissue, hydroxyl radical scavenging, vasodilation, and stimulation of healing.

An excellent controlled study was completed by the Japanese Rheumatism Association showing benefit in rheumatoid arthritis (Matsomoto - Annals of NY Academy of Sciences 1967, Vol. 141, Aritcle 1, 560-569). Twenty university centers were involved.

The use of DMSO for therapeutic applications is controversial, but some evidence indicates that DMSO has anti-inflammatory properties and alleviates pain when applied to the skin. These effects have been reported particularly with connective tissue diseases (such as scleroderma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis) and muscle injuries. DMSO applied to the affected area appears to reduce pain by inhibiting transmission of pain messages by nerves and may also soften the abnormal connective tissue associated with disorders such as Dupuytren’s contracture, keloids, Peyronie’s disease, and scleroderma.

At this time, DMSO is a respected, approved pharmaceutical agent in more than 125 countries. In 1970, the FDA approved DMSO for the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders in dogs and horses. Many veterinarians consider DMSO to be the most valuable therapeutic substance in their armamentarium. Additionally in 1978, it was approved by the FDA in humans for the therapy of Interstitial Cystitis (a painful disabling urinary bladder inflammation).

Double-blind and other controlled studies have found a 25% DMSO gel effective for pain relief in osteoarthritis of the knee and a 50% DMSO cream helpful for symptoms of acute reflex sympathetic dystrophy. However, while a double-blind trial successfully used a 10% DMSO gel to reduce pain and improve movement in people with acute tendinitis of the shoulder or elbow, an older double-blind trial found no difference between the effects of a 70% DMSO solution and a 5% DMSO "placebo" solution.

Preliminary research has suggested that DMSO may help relieve symptoms of amyloidosis of the skin.

Some medical doctors have instilled DMSO into the bladder to treat interstitial cystitis. A study from Malaysia reports that oral DMSO reduced relapse rates for peptic ulcer significantly better than placebo or the ulcer drug, cimetidine. DMSO is sometimes used by physicians as a vehicle to help absorb other therapeutic agents through the skin.

DMSO is not indicated for healthy people. Those who do use this substance should consult a doctor familiar with its use. Some physicians do not recommend the use of DMSO due to concerns about safety and questions about efficacy. The potential for contamination exists in some DMSO products designed for industrial uses. DMSO used topically is rapidly absorbed through intact skin. Therefore, the area of skin (and the hands applying DMSO) must be clean, because anything on the skin will also be absorbed along with the DMSO.

DMSO frequently causes a garlic-like body odor and taste in the mouth. Other reported side effects include stomach upset, sensitivity to light, visual disturbances, and headache. Skin irritation can develop at the site where DMSO is applied topically. Only highly purified, properly diluted DMSO should be used and the skin site and applying hand should be thoroughly cleaned before application, because the solvent properties of DMSO allow contaminants to be absorbed through the skin and transported into the bloodstream. Improperly diluted DMSO can also burn the skin. Check with a healthcare professional for appropriate use.

At the time of writing, there were no well-known drug interactions with DMSO.  Severe allergic reactions to DMSO are a possibility although to date, none have been recorded.

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DISCLAIMER:  The information in this column, is NOT intended to diagnose and/or treat any health related issues and is provided solely for informational purposes only. Consult the appropriate healthcare professional before making any changes to your healthcare regime. Even what may seem like simple changes in the diet for example, can interact with, and alter, the efficiency of medications and/or the body's response to the medications. Many herbs and supplements exert powerful medicinal effects. Neither the author, nor the website designers, assume any responsibility for the reader's use or misuse of this information.

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