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Greg Webb
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DMSO–What is it and why is its use controversial?

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DMSO, or Dimethyl Sulfoxide,[1] a chemical byproduct of a wood pulping process, is noted for its slow evaporation rate and often used as a solvent in chemical reactions since it is able to dissolve many compounds. It has been used in various products like paint thinner and antifreeze and as an extractant in biochemistry and cell biology. Recently, DMSO has gained increased use in manufacturing producing microelectronic devices.[2] When Oregon scientist Stanley Jacob discovered DMSO’s ability “to penetrate the skin without damaging it or other cells and its ability to carry other compounds into a biological system”[3] in 1963, he never guessed its far-ranging applications. These two traits made DMSO “useful as a topical analgesic, as a vehicle for topical application of pharmaceuticals, an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant.”[4] Since DMSO increases the rate of absorption of some compounds through the skin and other tissues, it is also used to aid drug delivery in the human body, and can be frequently found in antifungal medications.

In the 1960s, DMSO was used as a substance in which organs for transplantation could be stored. Occurring alone, DMSO is not as toxic as some solvent-type chemicals. But its reputation was marred by negative publicity surrounding the 1965 death of a woman due to an allergic reaction when treated with DMSO and other drugs for a sprained wrist (although no autopsy was performed and no cause established). It was believed (after animal experimentation) that DMSO may cause changes to the lens of the eye, so DMSO fell out of favor as a medicine with human applications. Yet in 1972, the National Academy of Science came out in support of DMSO’s use in a report. In 1978, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of DMSO for interstitial cystitis. DMSO began to be used regularly by veterinarians in the treatment of racetrack animals for joint inflammation and pain.

In 1980, Congress held hearings on complaints the FDA was too slow in approving the use of DMSO for other medical purposes, but in 2007, the FDA finally granted DMSO “fast track” status, approving its use to lessen brain tissue swelling after traumatic injury. Since that time, DMSO has been used as a dietary supplement and prescription medicine for a wide range of medical uses mostly to decrease pain and speed the healing of wounds. DMSO is also used either alone or in combination with other drugs to treat pain associated with shingles, according to WebMD. The aforementioned list doesn’t even include its intravenous uses.

So is it still controversial? According to WebMD, DMSO’s side-effects include skin reactions, dry skin, headache, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, breathing problems, vision problems, blood problems, and allergic reactions, and a garlic-like taste, breath and body odor. It’s possible that DMSO may harm the liver and/or the kidneys, and if a patient uses DMSO regularly, getting liver and kidney function tests periodically is recommended. DMSO may interact with certain drugs, and can change how insulin works in a body, thus patients with diabetes or who use other medications and who must use DMSO should check with their primary care provider about DMSO’s side effects.

There is concern that DMSO in non-prescription, over-the-counter meds, may be ‘industrial strength’ and not the quality DMSO for medical use, so it is important for people who use DMSO if they are able to be pro-active about their own health, that they check with their pharmacists and physicians about the kind and strength of the DMSO they are getting in certain medications.



[1] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethyl_sulfoxide

[2] Op. Cit.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.