MSM: What You Need to Know

Mature adult rubbing hands, close-up (grainy B&W)
Could a regular regimen of MSM alleviate the symptoms of arthritis?
Mel Curtis /Digital Vision /Getty Images

If you're getting older and creakier -- which will pretty much be the case for all of us at some point -- you may be wondering what you can do to stave off the joint pain and reduced mobility that seem to be nearly inevitable byproducts of aging. Someone -- a friend, an infomercial -- might have mentioned a pill called MSM.

Though that acronym can mean many things, eventually, you can winnow your search down to a little compound called methylsulfonylmethane. According to one physician, methylsulfonylmethane can help with aches, pains, nausea, arthritis, asthma, snoring and baldness. That physician, Thomas Herschler, just happens to hold quite a few patents on MSM products [source: Lang]. Of course, he may be correct, but there haven't been enough clinical trials for anyone to know for sure.


That hasn't stopped the nutritional-supplement industry from hopping on board the MSM train, though. Some suppliers hope MSM becomes one of your standard preventive pills -- a long-term maintenance supplement [source: Brighter Tomorrow]. Other authorities note that we don't yet know if it's safe to take MSM for longer than 12 weeks [source: Mayo Clinic]. As with any medicine, even if it's a simple supplement, it doesn't mean it's necessarily safe. Just about every medicine has the potential for side effects, as well as the possibility to interact with other medications you may be taking. Before starting any kind of supplement regimen, always consult your doctor first.

This article will tell you a bit more about MSM including what we know and what we don't, the possible benefits and risks of taking it, and its role in human hair and tissue growth.


MSM Benefits

Sulfur seems to be important in the strength and maintenance of joint tissue, especially cartilage. Since sulfur 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 sulfate or chondroitin in an effort to stave off further joint damage [source: Shiel]. 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 sulfur -- which is an essential mineral -- supplemental MSM may not be the best way to get it. Dietary sulfur 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.


MSM Side Effects

As nutritional supplements go, MSM seems to be one of the safer ones out there. No studies have established any toxicity or toxic buildup [source: MSM Guide]. If you take too much MSM, you may experience a bit of diarrhea, nausea or headache [source: Mayo Clinic]. But that's probably it. However, there may be other side effects depending on the quality and production of your MSM supplements.

Sulfur is what makes rotten eggs smell so bad, and some sulfur-based supplements have been known to have particularly stinky side effects. MSM typically doesn't do this, but you should make sure your supplement doesn't contain other sulfur compounds [source: The Arthritis and Glucosamine Information Center].


MSM occurs naturally in several foods, such as pine nuts and milk, which has led to speculation that people with some food allergies can't take MSM supplements [source: MSM Guide]. Although there are nutritional supplements (such as glucosamine) that are off-limits to certain food allergy patients, that's not the case for MSM. All MSM in supplements is synthetically produced [source: MSM Guide].

However, that doesn't mean you're home free on the allergy front. Different manufacturers may combine MSM with different ingredients. Before taking MSM, you do need to check these ingredients for allergens or other chemicals that might be contraindicated with your current prescriptions.

Even more importantly, be aware that the quality of synthetic MSM can differ dramatically. Some inferior MSM supplements contain trace amounts of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, and those most certainly can build up in your system, with toxic effects. If it's produced at plants that produce other synthetic chemicals, some MSM may contain other contaminants, such as benzene or -- depending on the manufacturer -- pesticides [source: Bergstrom Nutrition].

How do you steer clear of such dangers? Look for MSM that has been purified by distillation, not crystallization. The crystallization process is where toxic elements can accumulate. Distilled MSM, on the other hand, ought to be chemically identical to the naturally occurring molecules [source: MSM Guide].

What if you're hoping to use MSM to build up something non-toxic -- say, hair or muscle? Read on.


MSM and Hair Growth

Because MSM helps in tissue repair, some sellers tout it to promote the growth of hair and nails. After all, hair and nails are dead skin cells -- the more cells you produce, the more dead cells you have, right? Some physicians even say that MSM helps your body build collagen, the protein that keeps skin and hair supple [sources: Josephs].

Well, collagen is definitely important. It's one of the body's most plentiful proteins. It strengthens the skin, the tendons, the internal organs -- even the teeth and bones. Collagen deficiency leads to the symptoms of scurvy, in which the body can't repair even minor injuries [source: Goodsell]. And yes, the production of collagen does seem to depend in part on dietary sulfur. In animals, at least [source: Brown].


But there haven't been any peer-reviewed studies conclusively linking MSM supplements to increased hair growth. Similarly, there is indeed sulfur in keratin, one of the main proteins of hair, but an ordinary diet is probably adequate to provide all the sulfur you need for everyday hair growth [source: Nix].

Obviously, there's a giant demand for an over-the-counter remedy for hair loss. Lots of us want to grow more hair. Plenty of conditions -- alopecia, menopause, stress and plain old hereditary baldness -- can lead to hair loss. Even some otherwise desirable prescription drugs, such as cancer treatments, cause hair loss.

Unfortunately, this means that plenty of unethical profiteers have been eager to tout anything in pill form as the scalp equivalent of garden fertilizer. The American Hair Loss Association notes that 99 percent of hair loss remedies just don't work - and for now at least, it counts MSM among them.

On the next page, we'll take a look at the ways MSM might be able to aid in repairing other tissues.


MSM and Tissue Repair

When you're pumping iron at the gym, tiny tears develop in the skeletal muscles you're working. The body rushes to repair those tears and reinforce the torn places. Over time, this process adds to your muscle mass; it's how you bulk up.

Tissue repair is a constant process in the body. As we age, our bodies stop being quite so efficient at it. The collagen we produce gets less elastic [source: The Orthopaedic Research Institute]. The skin gets saggier. The joints get stiffer. The injuries get harder to recover from -- that's why trauma (especially repeated trauma) can lead to arthritis.


Because sulfur and collagen are such major components of tissue repair, MSM is thought to promote the rebuilding of muscles and joint tissue [source: MSM Guide]. Some authorities recommend taking it in combination with other supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, to minimize the tissue damage associated with arthritis [source: The Arthritis and Glucosamine Information Center].

Does increased sulfur actually lead to more or faster tissue repair? We don't quite know. We know that reduced dietary sulfur inhibits tissue repair [source: Brown]. But that's not the same thing as knowing that taking a sulfur supplement increases tissue repair. The body, frustratingly, doesn't work that simply.

The bottom line on MSM? If you want to take it, you probably can. (Do be aware of the possible allergy and contamination issues mentioned earlier, though; as with all supplements and drugs, check the ingredients list very carefully and talk to your doctor.) Supplemental MSM probably won't hurt you -- it just might not help you. If you see a benefit, it could be the placebo effect. Without more research, there's just no way of knowing.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Hair Loss Association. "Hair Replacement Basics." (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • The Arthritis and Glucosamine Information Center. "MSM Information." DTC Health. 2009. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Bergstrom Nutrition. "Safety First." Bergstrom News Briefs. 2008. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Brighter Tomorrow. "Buy MSM Online." (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Brown, R. Glenn; Button, Grace; and Smith, John T. "Changes in Collagen Metabolism Caused by Feeding Diets Low in Sulfur." JN: The Journal of Nutrition. 1987. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Goodsell, David S. "Collagen: Your Most Plentiful Protein." RCSB Protein Data Bank. April 2000. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Josephs, Allen S. "Anti-Aging Nutrients for Hair, Skin, and Nails." VitaCost. February 20, 2009. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Lang, Kerry L. "Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM." Quackwatch. 2001. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • The Mayo Clinic. "MSM for Arthritis Pain." July 2, 2007. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • MSM Guide. "How MSM Works to Improve Joint Health." 2008. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • MSM Guide. "MSM Manufacturing." 2008. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Nix, Staci, and Williams, Sue Rodwell. "Chapter 8: Minerals." Williams' Basic Nutrition and Diet Therapy. Mosby, 2005. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Orthopaedic Research Institute. "Musculoskeletal Information." (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • Shiel Jr., William J., MD. "Osteoarthritis (OA or Degenerative Arthritis." MedicineNet. 2009. (Accessed 3/12/09)
  • WebMD. "Building Muscle." (Accessed 3/12/09)