Sulphur seems to be important in the strength and maintenance of joint tissue, especially cartilage. Since sulphur is a significant component of MSM, one possible benefit of MSM is in the treatment of joint problems such as sports injuries, osteoarthritis and tendinitis. MSM also seems to help reduce inflammation [source: MSM Guide].
Many people with joint injuries or early signs of osteoarthritis take supplements such as glucosamine sulphate or chondroitin in an effort to stave off further joint damage. Although its benefits have not been proven, you might also be able to use MSM this way — either as a supplement or as a topical gel on the skin of the affected joint [sources: Mayo Clinic, MSM Guide].
It’s important to note that MSM is not an acute pain remedy. Patients and doctors alike hope that MSM helps the body’s own repair and maintenance systems work better — but if you’ve just sprained your ankle, you should be reaching for the ibuprofen, not the MSM.
There are a few indications that MSM may help with certain respiratory conditions, such as asthma, seasonal allergies and snoring. But clinical proof is slim. Many more studies are needed to establish whether MSM has true medical benefits, and if so, what they are [sources: Lang, Mayo Clinic].
At least one doctor notes that, while the body does need sulphur — which is an essential mineral — supplemental MSM may not be the best way to get it. Dietary sulphur comes from the digestion of protein-rich foods (meat and dairy products, legumes, eggs and nuts), so you may be getting enough from whatever source of protein you choose to eat [source: Lang].
The nutritional-supplement industry touts MSM as a muscle-builder and a hair-grower. We’ll explore those claims in more detail later.
Even if the claims of MSM’s effectiveness need more proof, it might be tempting to take the supplement anyway, just in case it does work. Can MSM ever hurt you? Read on.
What causes joint pain?
Osteoarthritis (OA) and physical strain can lead to joint pain and swelling. MSM has been shown to relieve pain associated with OA. It has also shown anti-inflammatory effects in animal research.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a nearly universal consequence of aging among vertebrates. Over 40 million Americans have some form of degenerative joint disease, including 80% of people over 50 years old. By the seventh decade, OA is nearly universal, producing the highest rate of morbidity of any disease.
Joints affected by OA suffer from uneven loading, which leads to altered lines of weight bearing. Cartilage (made by cells called chondrocytes) begins to build up to compensate for the uneven load, which forms roughening and deformities in the joint surface. The joints inflame and no longer operate smoothly, but instead the ball and socket rub unevenly from the friction of the outgrowths of cartilage and bone, called osteophytes. These changes cause irritation, triggering more cartilage growth and inflammation– and the cycle of degeneration is set into motion. Science has been unsuccessful in finding a cure for OA, so instead, treatment focuses on easing the symptoms.
Sports injuries, tennis elbow, and tendonitis involve inflammation and micro-trauma to the soft tissues around the joints.
The inflammation caused by these injuries can easily become chronic due to overuse or improper after-care, resulting in symptoms not unlike arthritis: soreness, stiffness, and general pain in the region.
The role of sulphur in joint pain
MSM is thought to deliver sulphur to the body in a useable way. Sulphur helps maintain the structure of connective tissue by forming cross-linkages through disulphide bonds, i.e., sulphur strengthens the tissues that make up the joint.
Sulphur is critical to good joint health. Glycosaminoglycan’s (GAGs) are the fundamental building blocks of joint cartilage, and GAG molecules are linked together in chains by disulphide bonds. As the name implies, these bonds are between two sulphur atoms. The disulphide bridges reduce conformational flexibility of GAG chains, making cartilage firm and resilient. Cartilage integrity is thus a sulphur-dependent state.
MSM contains a lot of sulphur – 34% by weight. While more research is needed to determine how the body absorbs the sulphur it needs from MSM, preliminary studies in mice and in horses suggest that the sulphur in MSM is incorporated into proteins and into joint tissues.
Relieving joint pain with MSM
The generally recommended dosage is 1,500 to 6,000 mg of MSM per day. This is based on two double-blind studies of MSM for osteoarthritis of the knee.
Some people achieve results in as little as a week, but most research indicates that MSM may take more time to reduce joint problems.
For example, the 2006 Kim study period extended for 12 weeks, starting with a dose of 2 grams a day then increasing over the next three days to 6 grams per day. In that study, pain was reduced by 25%, with the most dramatic change reported between week two and week four; pain continued to decrease all the way through week twelve, indicating that a longer study might have shown even further benefit.
MSM can be introduced to the joint in three ways, orally (liquid or pill), topically (a gel applied directly onto the joint), or by physician injection. Most experts recommend a mix of oral and topical application for best results. Injection should only be performed by qualified medical personnel.