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MSM for Arthritis: Miracle Pill or Snake Oil?

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WebMD Health News

April 7, 2000 (New York) -- When most actors win an Oscar, they thank their friends and family along with the movie's producers, directors, and supporting actors, but not James Coburn.

He thanked the supplement MSM for helping him beat the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis when he nabbed the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the movie Affliction in 1999.

Close to 2.5 million people have rheumatoid arthritis, a disease characterized by the inflammation of the membrane lining the joint, which causes pain, warmth, redness, and swelling. The latest supplement du jour, MSM, or methyl sulfonylmethane, is said to help a wide range of conditions, including arthritis, allergies, and even snoring.

Discovered in the early 1980s by Stanley W. Jacob, MD, and Robert Herschler, MD, of the department of surgery at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, MSM is an odorless and tasteless natural sulfur compound found in all living things. Sulfur is needed by the body for healthy connective tissue and joint function and has purported pain-quashing and anti-inflammatory properties. While MSM is found in many foods, including meat, fish, certain fruit, vegetables, and grains, it is destroyed when foods are processed.

Enter the dietary supplements of MSM taken by Coburn and millions of others.

But some leading arthritis authorities are not convinced MSM is a miracle supplement.

"Nobody is quite sure how it works yet, but basic research is under way. We do know that sulfur is very important to body tissues and that it damps down pain impulses," Ronald M. Lawrence, MD, PhD, executive director of the Council on Natural Nutrition in Los Angeles, tells WebMD.

Lawrence wrote the book on MSM. Literally.

An author of The Miracle of MSM: The Natural Solution for Pain, Lawrence says he has treated more than 6,000 patients with MSM.

In a study of 18 people with arthritis, Lawrence found an 82% improvement in pain, on average. "A study of soccer players in Barbados is now under way that should put to rest any disbelief," he says.

In a written statement, the Arthritis Foundation notes that at this time, there is not enough evidence available about MSM's effectiveness and, therefore, it is considered an unproven remedy.

While there has been extensive anecdotal evidence reported and some studies, the Arthritis Foundation is unaware of significant long-term studies involving large numbers of patients to assess the safety and long-term benefits or harm of the chemical, according to the statement.

David Pisetsky, MD, chief of rheumatology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., agrees.

"These substances are being used as drugs and they have interactions with other medications and can be a problem in people with conditions we don't know about," he tells WebMD.

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