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Will DMSO Ease Your Aching Knees?

Some people like to apply DMSO topically for joint pain. Most of the research has focused on its use for interstitial cystitis rather than arthritis.
Will DMSO Ease Your Aching Knees?
Woman rubs sore knee with anti-inflammatory ointment, close-up, medical, copy space

What do you know about DMSO? This chemical solvent, dimethyl sulfoxide, was discovered more than 150 years ago. By the mid to late 1960s, people were experimenting with potential medical applications. It has a reputation for fighting pain, and the FDA has approved its use to alleviate the excruciating pain of interstitial cystitis. However, many people promoting the use of this compound suggest that it should be applied topically–as it is on horses–to ease joint pain and inflammation. It is related to MSM, methylsulfonylmethane, which has also been promoted against arthritis pain. The evidence on both compounds is inconclusive, but at least one reader is enthusiastic.

Will DMSO Overcome Knee Pain?

Q. I have controlled my knee pain and other aches by applying DMSO liquid. It is available by prescription or at your local feed store. (It is used on horses’ legs.)

A. DMSO is useful in many diverse applications. It is easily absorbed through the skin and has been used to increase transdermal absorption of other drugs. 

Are There Clinical Trials?

Clinical trials are hard to conduct because many people report a garlic-like taste and odor. As a result, a placebo for double-blind studies is challenging. MSM is often taken by mouth, making placebo-controlled trials somewhat more feasible. Scientists found evidence that this sulfur-containing substance can ease knee osteoarthritis (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 27, 2011). However, another study found no clear benefit (U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, Oct-Dec. 2017). 

A review of animal and human research concluded that DMSO may have some utility in the treatment of arthritis, but better clinical trials are essential (PLoS One, March 31, 2016).  In vitro, the compound has anti-inflammatory activity, but that doesn’t establish its clinical utility (Molecules, Nov. 10, 2017).

We would discourage people from buying DMSO veterinary products. Prescription DMSO is available as Rimso-50 for interstitial cystitis. It is pricey, though. A 50 ml bottle is over $600. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Alternatives for Arthritis

This eGuide describes nondrug alternatives for arthritis with the latest scientific studies to document anti-inflammatory activity. This comprehensive online guide (too long to print) adds the science behind ancient healing traditions.

Alternatives for Arthritis
  • Debbi EM et al, "Efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane supplementation on osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized controlled study." BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 27, 2011. DOI: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-50
  • Tennent DJ et al, "A randomized controlled trial evaluating methylsulfonylmethane versus placebo to prevent knee pain in military initial entry trainees." U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, Oct-Dec. 2017.
  • Elisia I et al, "DMSO represses inflammatory cytokine production from human blood cells and reduces autoimmune arthritis." PLoS One, March 31, 2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152538
  • de Abreu Costa L et al, "Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO) decreases cell proliferation and TNF-α, IFN-γ, and IL-2 cytokines production in cultures of peripheral blood lymphocytes." Molecules, Nov. 10, 2017. DOI: 10.3390/molecules22111789
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