Methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM, is an organosulfur compound. Most often used as a protagonistic agent to anti-inflammatory prostaglandin action, MSM is frequently found in compounded creams and other topical treatments.
Most research has focused on the potential efficacy of MSM on osteoarthritis in large joints, such as the knee. One of MSM’s chemical properties that make it well-suited to this type of use is its ability to be converted into a solvent that can penetrate dermal layers.
In research published in 1982, biochemist Robert Herschler meticulously examined MSM for its role in phosphorus supplementation.1 His findings broadened the interest in MSM from applications mainly for arthritis to those that included allergies, gastrointestinal complaints, and mucous membrane inflammation.1
In 2002, Jacob Stanley brought a great deal of attention to MSM’s use in alternative medicine when he wrote a book detailing more than 18,000 patient experiences with MSM for a wide variety of ailments.2
The mechanism of action of MSM is not clearly understood and may very well act on more than one level at a time. MSM’s ability to penetrate into the intradermal layers is a crucial aspect of its benefit. By being able to penetrate the fat barrier in the skin, MSM can block the signaling process that activates the release of inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins.3
Other studies support MSM’s action to stabilize cell membranes, which can slow leakage and allow healing time in the absence of the inflammatory compounds.4
Use of MSM can significantly reduce pain and dysfunction in patients with osteoarthritis. In a study of 49 adults with radiographically confirmed severe osteoarthritis of the knee, participants were randomly assigned to receive 12 weeks of either treatment with an oral MSM product or a placebo product.5
Patients were screened for symptoms of pain, stiffness, and altered quality of life at the beginning and end of the trial using the aggravated locomotor function (ALF) test and the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Patients in the MSM treatment group experienced statistically significant reductions overall in pain and dysfunction, exceeding a 20% change from baseline to the end of the study.
A meta-analysis of three trials involving more than 325 patients also found that MSM was effective in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee.6 In a summary statement of findings, researchers agreed that the data established an overall reduction in pain with the use of MSM, but emphasized that the three trials identified an average reduction of 6.34 mm on a visual analog scale that requires a minimum change from baseline of 17.5 mm for statistical significance.
Perhaps the most exciting potential of MSM is in its association with malignant melanoma cells, which have been found to be saturated with the compound.7 As a volatile organic compound, the intense clusters of MSM in these cells gives off an odor. Researchers are exploring the potential of nanotechnology sensors that can “sniff out” the MSM in melanoma long before it is visible.