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A Look at Treating Pain with DMSO

DMSO is a popular choice around the world, but research is still underway in the U.S. Find out what both sides are saying.

DMSO is a product that has a fiercely loyal following and an equally fierce opposition. We decided to examine what DMSO does and the research and regulations surrounding its use.

DMSO and Its Uses

DMSO is dimethyl sulfoxide, an organic sulfur compound from trees that is a by-product of the paper-making process. DMSO is most commonly known as industrial solvent -- chemicals used to cleanse metal objects and electronic parts, like machinery. Solvents can also be found in household and personal products such as paint thinners and nail polish. There are many kinds of solvents, with varying degrees of potency and the associated health hazards. DMSO is one of the least hazardous in its class.

The medicinal properties of DMSO were first discovered in 1963 by Dr. Stanley W. Jacob, who lead a research team from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Dr. Jacob noticed DMSO's ability to immediately penetrate skin without causing harm. DMSO is able to penetrate skin membranes and blood-brain barriers, successfully blocking nerve conduction fibers that produce pain. Dr. Jacobs continued his research of DMSO which has led to thousands of laboratory studies and published articles about the clinical and health properties of DMSO. In 125 countries, including Germany, Canada, Great Britain and Japan, doctors recommend DMSO to patients experiencing pain, inflammation, swelling and arthritis.

DMSO is available as a supplement in liquid or cream form. When applied topically to sprains, strains, bruises and injured muscles, pain is alleviated and swelling subsides within an hour of application. Other potential medical uses of DMSO are:

  • Treatment of the pain and inflammation in arthritis, bursitis, fibromyalgia and other musculoskeletal conditions and increases range of motion.
  • Relieves headaches, speeds up healing of minor wounds, cuts and burns and alleviates the pain of herpes quickly.
  • Lowers intracranial (brain) pressure in patients who have had a stroke, dissolving blood clots and increasing urine output.
  • May slow the growth of cancer cells and serve as an adjunct in chemotherapy as a drug carrier.
  • DMSO's miscibility makes it an effective drug delivery system, carrying with it some pharmaceutical substances that are not able to penetrate the body as quickly, such as morphine sulphate, penicillin, steroids and cortisone.

DMSO and the FDA

Except as a prescriptive drug for interstitial cystitis, DMSO does not have approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA blocked all DMSO trials in November 1965, citing the following reasons:

  • The death of a woman who had taken DMSO along with other medications.
  • Lens changes of lab mammals that were given the chemical.
  • DMSO's distinct garlicky odor is an obstacle to double blind studies, as it removes the required anonymity. This same odor may also present difficulties in marketing DMSO as a drug.
  • Having been around as a solvent, pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to spend millions of dollars on research and development when they can’t get an exclusive patent for production.

At present, DMSO is sold as a supplement for musculoskeletal pains and as a balm for burns, bruises and cuts. The FDA recently approved Dr. Jack de la Torre’s proposed study of DMSO as a treatment for closed head injuries, beginning in 2010. Dr. De la Torre is a physician and professor of neurosurgery and physiology at the University of New Mexico Medical School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Recommended Dosage

As a topical application, a 70 percent DMSO and 30 percent water solution is typically used by athletes. Strength in dosing is directly proportional to efficacy, with 90 percent giving the maximum effect, relieving pain for up to six hours. Paradoxically, a solution higher than that lowered the drug’s effectiveness. In some cases, pain may recur after four to six hours and a second application is needed. 

An important reminder to users of liquid or cream topical DMSO is to ensure that the area where the medication is to be applied is well cleansed. The ease of penetration makes the skin susceptible to infection through entry of bacteria.

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