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Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO)


What is DMSO?  How was it developed?


Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) has diverse medical applications as well as a controversial history.  It was first synthesized in the mid 1800’s as a byproduct of wood pulp processing and has been used since 1953 as an industrial solvent in products like paint thinner and antifreeze.  It was first used in medicine in the 1960’s as a substance in which organs for transplantation could be stored and is still widely used to preserve tissue when frozen for storage.  Soon after, many uses for DMSO in medicine were observed, ranging from alleviating the pain of sprained ankles to treating ulcers.  DMSO easily gained notoriety as a “cure-all” drug. Upon investigation, high doses of DMSO caused lens changes in mammals. As a result, despite its many potential benefits, the FDA never approved its use for most medical conditions.  Many subsequent studies have found no evidence of eye changes in primates or humans.  Regardless, DMSO has been approved for treatment of only one medical condition, interstitial cystitis (a condition of the bladder).  It has, however, become very popular amongst veterinarians who use DMSO in the treatment of racetrack animals with joint inflammation and pain.  MSM, a derivative of DMSO, is a popular supplement that has been demonstrated to be safe to use on a regular basis.   

Medical-grade DMSO cannot be sold over the counter.  The only preparations of DMSO available without a prescription are industrial-grade.  Obviously, these should never be used as medical therapy.  Many vendors market DMSO gels, liquids and creams for medical use.  These preparations are often improper for the advertised purpose.  It is very important to distinguish medical grade DMSO from that used in industry and veterinary medicine.   


How does DMSO treat arthritis? 

DMSO has shown remarkable therapeutic diversity in relieving the symptoms associated with ulcers of the skin, scleroderma, and muscle injuries.  Relevant here, is the effect it appears to have on arthritis and osteoarthritis.  Its ability to absorb directly through the skin allows quick and local administration.  Some researchers think DMSO, itself an antioxidant, neutralizes hydroxyl free radicals that cause pain, inflammation and degeneration in arthritis.  Other theories suggest DMSO blocks specific nerve fibers responsible for transmission of pain.


How do I know if I should use DMSO? 

DMSO is not a cure for osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis but it can be used alone or in conjunction with other treatments to improve your symptoms.  You should only use DMSO under the supervision of a doctor.  This way allergic reactions and interference with other drugs can be identified and managed.  Side effects can and should also be discussed in full with your individual physician because different individuals may be at greater risk for certain side effects.  DMSO may have a blood thinning effect so your doctor may advise you not to use DMSO if you are currently using blood-thinners like heparin, coumadin or aspirin.  Perhaps the most important reason to consult your doctor is the scarcity of medical-grade DMSO on the open market.  Your doctor might be able to help you find a safe and trustworthy product.  You may be on a medication from a class of drugs known as DMARDS (disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs).  These drugs halt and reverse some of the damage to the joint and should not be discontinued unless discussed with your doctor.


What are the known side-effects of DMSO? 

DMSO can cause skin irritation and itching when used topically. This tends to occur in areas of friction.  Other sensitive areas include the face and neck.  One of the most prominent adverse effects of DMSO is a strong, unpleasant garlic odor that originates from the breath and skin.  This odor is associated with both topical application and ingestion.  It is important to wash your hands before applying DMSO.  It can dissolve and absorb most substances on the skin and deliver it to the bloodstream.


What have studies found about the safety and effectiveness of DMSO? 

Countless studies have been published that suggest DMSO is safe for use in humans and relieves a multitude of symptoms, including the pain and inflammation of arthritis.  None the less, many physicians would classify it as an unproven remedy and are hesitant to recommend DMSO.  This is likely because there is little regulation of readily available preparations and a risk of patient’s forgoing on use of other proven disease-modifying medications.  An additional concern is the risk that DMSO will provide entry of toxins to the bloodstream given its known abilities as a solvent.  Because of the potential for serious side effects and the unproven efficacy, it is not generally recommended.  It is strongly recommended that you consult your physician prior to using DMSO.  If you are considering the use of DMSO, your doctor can assist you in making an informed decision.


Authors:  Katherine Fox, B.A., UMDNJ – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, NJ

                Elise Weiss, M.D., New York-Presbyterian Hospital, The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell, New York City, NY


        - arthritis.org
        - dmso.org
        - medical-library.net
        - Medline Plus, found at nlm.nih.gov









 Arthritis MD. © 2005