Super Supplement?

MSM supplements come in capsules and in powders, crystals, liquids and creams.
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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

13 Investigates has learned some professional athletes are now using a controversial substance to recover from injuries and to help extend their careers. It's not a steroid. It's not a drug. And it's not illegal. But is it too good to be true? 13 Investigates shows you what it is, who's using it, and whether it can help you.

Kit is considered a star.

The gentle thoroughbred is a center of attention at Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding Center near Zionsville, where children with disabilities seem to forget their day-to-day challenges as they climb onto Kit's back.

But if you listen closely, you'll notice the therapeutic riding horse needs some therapy of her own.

The 22-year-old former race horse has arthritis; almost every step is accompanied by an audible click or pop.

"That's the reason we use MSM," explained her trainer. "We give it to several of our horses and it keeps them on their feet so they can do their job."

MSM, or methyl sulfonyl methane, is a sulfur-based compound that occurs naturally in some green plants, fruits and vegetables, and is now processed synthetically as a dietary supplement.

Kit gets a daily dose of MSM in a cookie while another Morning Dove horse, Butch, gets MSM powder mixed into his feed.

"Butch used to stumble a lot, but not since we put him on the MSM," said trainer Corinna Wagner. "It definitely has seen an amazing improvement with him. The MSM has an anti-inflammatory and helps with the rebuild of the joints. When they're not on their supplement, they're really sore."

MSM is no secret among the world's top horse trainers, especially those who compete in the high-stakes world of thoroughbred horse racing. But for decades, MSM was given only to horses.

Not just for horses

That changed in Portland, Ore., when a doctor at the Oregon Health Sciences University decided to give MSM to some of his patients. Dr. Stanley Jacob found MSM seemed to help people, too.

Word of Jacob's research began to spread. Other arthritis patients like Dick Brown, a successful running coach who has trained more than a dozen Olympic and World Championship athletes, tried MSM, as well. Fifteen years later, Brown says the supplement is now an integral part of his diet and without it, he cannot walk without a noticeable limp caused by arthritis and torn cartilage in his right knee.

"I think it's beneficial because it reduces the pain," Brown said. "When I use it I can sleep better, so I would recommend MSM."

Dr. Tom Eyrich recommends it, too. He reports impressive results after giving MSM to patients suffering from joint pain in Indianapolis.

"MSM supplies building blocks that allow the joints to repair themselves in a natural way without side effects," Eyrich said. "We've seen pain levels drop significantly, I'd say, in about 70- to 80-percent of the patients we try it on."

MSM is available in pills, powders, crystals, creams and liquids. The supplement now lines the shelves of health food stores and pharmacies, where it is sold by itself or mixed in with other dietary supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

No matter what kind you buy, it's not cheap. Most MSM products cost anywhere from $20 to more than $80 a bottle.

That's a small price to pay -- if you're a professional athlete.

Going Pro

The Indiana Pacers confirm team trainers give MSM supplements to some of their NBA players, although the team won't say which Pacers are taking it. MSM is also permitted in Major League Baseball and in the National Football League, where joint injuries are common and getting back on the field is crucial.

"Anything that can get you back quicker is of interest," said Patrick Kersey, a Methodist Sports Medicine doctor who works with pro football players. "People will try to do anything they can to be competitively better than they presently are or were, so supplements like this can have a lot of appeal."

Professional sports teams contacted by WTHR did not want to comment on MSM. The Indianapolis Colts would not confirm or deny that some of its players had taken MSM during the past season to help recover from injuries.

"We typically do not address issues like this, either with staff or players," said Colts spokesman Craig Kelley.

"You don't know what you're getting"

Kersey says despite MSM's growing popularity, he is skeptical because he hasn't seen enough scientific evidence to show MSM really works.

"My recommendation would probably be against it," Kersey said. "The problem is the purity within all of these supplements is incredibly variable because a supplement does not need to be stringently studied or tested.... You don't know what you're getting. There may be great benefit to it. I just don't know that."

Even MSM supporters like Eyrich admit some MSM products might be a waste of money.

"To go into a drugstore or a health food store and pick up some MSM, it's a shot in the dark," said Eyrich.

To get more information about MSM and how it's produced, 13 Investigates traveled to Vancouver, Wash. (a Portland suburb), to visit the headquarters of Bergstrom Nutrition. Bergstrom says it produces "the world's most pure MSM." As one of the world's largest MSM manufacturers, Bergtrom's OptiMSM brand is repackaged and sold under at least 30 private labels in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. A company spokeswoman told WTHR she would arrange for company officials to meet with us to talk about the company's product.

Reporter turned away

But as we were arriving in Portland, a public relations agency representing Bergstrom called to say company executives had changed their mind and would not meet to discuss even basic questions about Bergstrom-produced MSM.

The PR agency said a meeting could not happen because Bergstrom officials were traveling and WTHR had chosen a bad week to visit. That story changed after we offered to return to Vancouver the following week to accommodate the schedules of Bergstrom executives.

"You have to understand, we have some real concerns about meeting with a reporter," admitted PR spokeswoman Crystal Rocabado, who would not elaborate on those concerns. "At this point, I just don't see how we can proceed."

Bergstrom did send WTHR a stack of scientific studies which, the company says, shows MSM is safe and effective. But 13 Investigates found most of the research is considered small-scale or preliminary, much of it was conducted on animals -- not people -- and some of the studies were funded by companies that sell MSM.

Magic in a bottle?

MSM skeptics worry not only about a lack of scientific evidence, but also about the way in which some MSM marketers aggressively promote their products to make it appear MSM can solve just about any health problem you can imagine.

One web site says MSM is helpful in the treatment of 40 different conditions: everything from snoring and stress to constipation and cancer.

The fine print on many containers of MSM states the health-benefit claims made on the bottles are not endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration, and that the products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

MSM's pioneer says the supplement is not intended to be a magic cure.

"It is very effective in reducing pain and it can be effective in helping a number of things, but MSM doesn't cure anything," Jacob told WTHR. "Some of the claims out there do more harm than good."

MSM safety

The FDA has not yet determined whether all MSM will be granted GRAS status as a substance "generally recognized as safe." But to date, MSM has no known serious side effects, and it is not considered dangerous.

A January 2008 article published by the American Academy of Family Physicians states "MSM has been well tolerated in clinical trials and does not appear to cause side effects more often than placebo." The report also says "more data are needed to assess long-term safety" because most of the clinical trials involving MSM lasted three months or less.

The Arthritis Foundation has recommended consumers take the following steps before and while taking MSM:

--If you plan to take MSM, tell your doctor and ask your doctor to monitor you for any adverse effects.

--Do not stop taking your prescription medications unless directed by your doctor, and ask your doctor is the supplement might interact negatively with other medications.

--Start with a low dosage of 500 milligrams (mg) or less twice a day and gradually increase the amount until you notice some effect. Most sources suggest 1,000 mg twice a day.

--Be patient. But if you don't see any difference after two months, you may never see a difference and it may not be worth continuing to expose yourself to unknown risks.

--Tell you doctor if you get diarrhea, stomach upsets or mild cramps - especially at higher doses. Lowering the dose may stop these potential symptoms.

--Buy MSM only from an established company that will stand by its products, and avoid companies making "miracle" and other hyped claims. It is illegal for supplements to make such claims that a product will "cure" or "prevent" a disease.

How do you find a reputable brand of MSM?

Eyrich says he and many other naturopathic physicians spend a lot of time researching supplement manufacturers and marketers before recommending a specific brand to their patients. The MSM Eyrich recommends is produced by companies that welcome face-to-face meetings to answer questions about their supplements and also allow tours of their manufacturing facilities.

"Ask your doctor to do some research for you," Eyerich said. "That's what we're here for."

For more information about MSM, check out the following links:

MSM Guide (sponsored by MSM manufacturer Bergstrom Nutrition)

Arthritis Today article about MSM and its history

WebMD article about MSM 

Earth Clinic website where consumers share their positive and negative experiences with MSM