MSM for Arthritis: Miracle Pill or Snake Oil?

From the WebMD Archives

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.

"These are drugs and they do have side effects and haven't been put to the test the way conventional pharmaceuticals have," he says. "There are a lot of good, new classes of arthritis drugs that work very well and have been tested."

Another problem with MSM and other supplements is that "they are not inexpensive, and patients spend a lot of money on unproven alternative therapies and then they don't want to spend money on prescription medications," Pisetsky says.

When it comes to MSM and all supplements, buyer beware, Gilbert Ross, MD, tells WebMD. Ross is medical director for the American Council On Science and Health, a nonprofit consumer education group in New York City.

"Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and as such, you can never be sure what it is you are getting," he says.

Vital Information:

  • About 2.5 million people suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a disease characterized by the inflammation of the membrane that lines the joint, causing pain, warmth, redness, and swelling.
  • In a small study and in anecdotal reports, the supplement MSM, methyl sulfonylmethane, has been shown to be effective against rheumatoid arthritis.
  • The safety and long-term benefits of the drug have not yet been determined, so some physicians warn patients to exercise caution in using MSM.