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July 1999
Feature Stories
 
Blast Muscle Pain With MSM
By Martin Zucker
 
Muscle soreness is one of the athlete's most dreaded companions. Here's the buzz about a new supplement that can cut soreness by up to 40%.
 
How do you spell relief from workout-induced muscle soreness? Try M-S-M, a nutritional supplement that is creating a buzz thes
 
MSM, short for methylsulfonylmethane, is a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in small quantities in the body and in food. According to the foremost expert on MSM, Stanley W. Jacob, M.D., of the renowned DMSO Clinic at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, the substance, when taken as a supplement, exerts potent anti-inflammatory activity, stops pain impulses and muscle spasm, and improves blood supply.

“Much of the scientific fine print relating to MSM’s many healing mechanisms still needs to be determined, but we know from clinical experience that it provides major pain relief,” says Jacob, co-author of The Miracle of MSM—The Natural Solution for Pain (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999). Jacob has been using MSM clinically for 20 years—longer than any other physician. He points out that MSM has many of the properties of DMSO (dimethyl sufoxide), a therapeutic agent used worldwide for painful and inflammatory conditions. Since the 1960s, DMSO has been used by thousands of athletes and trainers to effectively reduce pain, inflammation and recovery time from injuries.

Over the years in his clinic, Jacob has used both DMSO and MSM for athletic injuries, strained or cramped muscles and overextended joints. He has found that many people do not continue using DMSO because of its annoying, oyster-like odor. MSM does not have the odor, which makes it attractive for long-term use.Recovery is enchanced in a big way, which is a great benefit for people pushing their bodies to the max day after day.In recent years, with interest growing in alternative medicine and natural remedies, MSM has emerged from relatively limited clinical usage into mainstream use as a nutritional supplement. Word has spread like a tidal wave about its ability to deliver relief for chronic pain and many inflammatory and allergic conditions. In 1999, the wave reached the fitness and athletic world.

“It is beneficial in a big way,” says Scott Magers, 35, of Irvine, Calif., a personal trainer and former collegiate baseball coach who lectures widely on sports nutrition.

“I have trained with weights since 1979 at a very intense level,” he says, “and there has never been a time after doing heavy leg work that there wasn’t some stiffness and soreness the next day ... until MSM came along. After only a day or two, I experienced a significant decrease in muscle soreness. This effect has continued ever since I began using MSM daily more than a year and a half ago.”

Magers now regards MSM as the most effective supplement he has ever taken. “And I have taken a lot of supplements,” he is quick to note. “With most supplements, I could never really tell the difference. With this one, I can tell a difference. I simply don’t have muscle soreness, or all the aches and pains that go along with being a bodybuilder.”

The effect of MSM has enabled him to increase the intensity of training, including his cardiovascular program. “The MSM has reduced the usual aftereffects so significantly that sometimes I feel I haven’t even worked out,” Magers says. “I squat 395 lb, do lunges and dead lifts. I am training at a very intense level, so for me to notice as significant a change as this—that is, no soreness—has been the biggest breakthrough in all my years of weight training.

“Usually, when you do heavy rep sets, whether it’s squats, chest or back routines, you have a burning feeling as you get to the fourth, fifth or sixth rep. The burn is from the buildup of lactic acid. But it is significantly reduced with MSM. As a result of not having that burn, you can do an extra rep or two. And the next day, you have considerably less soreness. Recovery is dramatically enhanced.”

The debilitating lactic-acid buildup occurs in muscle cells when glucose and glycogen are burned for energy in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic metabolism). This buildup leads to fatigue, muscle pain and an inability to continue muscle contractions.

The painful consequence of all-out effort is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Weekend warriors experience it, as do people who, after months or years of inactivity, jump into an exercise program and overdo it. Even experienced weight lifters can get DOMS when they increase the intensity of their workouts or incorporate new exercises into their routines. This sudden or excessive stress is thought to cause trauma to the microscopic protein filaments inside the muscle fibers as well as the connective tissues. This damage is believed to irritate local nerve endings and trigger pain. There may also be localized rupture of tiny blood vessels and subsequent inflammation, adding to the discomfort.MSM is a derivative of DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), which is made from wood fiber. One-third of MSM by weight is biologically active sulfur. Sulfur has a long tradition of healing, and throughout history, physicians have prescribed sulfur hot springs to their infirm patients.

MSM has many benefits. It:

  • Inhibits pain impulses along nerve fibers and thus has an analgesic effect.
  • Reduces inflammation and muscle spasm, both of which contribute to lessened pain and soreness.
  • Increases blood supply.
  • Softens scar tissue.
  • Blocks histamine activity in the body, providing powerful relief from allergies.
MSM is widely available in powder and capsule form for internal consumption, and also in lotions and creams for external application to affected areas. “We believe that MSM can be more beneficial when used in combination, that is, taken orally as a nutritional supplement, as well as applied to the skin,” says Jacob. Magers has recommended MSM to about 150 athletes and trainers. “Across the board,” he says, “the feedback has been very positive. DOMS is greatly reduced, as well as aches and pains in the knees, shoulders or other joints. Recovery is enhanced in a big way, which is a great benefit for people pushing their bodies to the max day after day.”

Magers usually takes 6 gm (6,000 mg) of MSM before and after a workout. He increases the dosage to 8 gm on days of particularly heavy leg lifting, and drops down to 4 or 5 gm on lighter shoulder days. On days when he doesn’t work out, he takes 5 gm in the morning and 5 gm again at night.

“This level works very well for my body, and is working for many of the athletes I talk to as well, but it may not be appropriate for everybody,” he says.

According to Magers, some individuals have developed a slight headache when they first start taking MSM but “they feel great afterward.” Some athletes who previously were taking steroids or other drugs may experience nausea or flu-like symptoms for a day or two. “There may be some detoxification process going on in the beginning,” he suggests.

Mike Torchia, 42, of Beverly Hills, Calif., a fitness consultant and former champion bodybuilder (overall winner, Mr. Collegiate Mr. America, 1977), regards MSM as a great advance for individuals involved in intense training.

“If you are not taking something like MSM, you often have to take aspirin, ibuprofen, anti-inflammatories or assorted muscle rubs and creams that only give temporary relief,” he says. “With MSM, you have a new and important aid against the inevitable muscle soreness that comes with peak intensity training.”

Torchia finds that 3 to 5 gm work well for him, reducing his usual muscle soreness by about 40%. He has been using MSM for more than 6 months.

“MSM has been particularly useful to me because it gets harder to push it to the max as you get older,” he says. “You become more intolerant to the pain, and you don’t recuperate as fast. MSM helps me endure the pain when I need to cycle up my training to prepare for guest appearances. It quickly relieves the soreness, so I can continue training hard.”

Magers uses MSM daily, while Torchia tends to use it primarily on intense workout days. Although MSM has a good record for safe, longtime usage, both suggest that it may be appropriate to give the body a break from MSM from time to time.

One note of caution offered by Magers is to be aware that MSM may mask muscle fatigue. “With MSM, you may not get the usual pain signals as you push out one final, heavy rep,” he says. “This happened to me in the beginning when I was doing incline dumbbell presses. The burn wasn’t there, and I thought I could push up the dumbbell one more time. All of a sudden, my arm gave out, and I almost clobbered myself.”

At his Portland clinic, Jacob has treated thousands of patients for chronic pain conditions. Under his supervision, some have safely taken more than 50 gm for severe pain. Jacob says that dosages ranging from 2 to 8 gm daily provide relief for many common pain and allergy situations, but higher levels are frequently needed for more deep-seated infirmities. Dosages vary, depending on gastrointestinal tolerance and an individual’s condition. “You should always take the least possible amount that gives you the benefit you desire,” the doctor says.

Jacob’s general advice is to start with a low dosage and work up slowly, dividing the doses during the day. This helps the body become accustomed to MSM. Taking it with meals also reduces the chance of developing any possible side effects, such as minor gastrointestinal discomfort, increased stool frequency or headaches. If such reactions occur, reduce the amount of MSM.

Many athletes, however, find that they are able to start at levels higher than those generally recommended by Jacob. Moreover, they take the supplement on an empty stomach and appear to have few or no reactions. If reactions do occur, the advice is to reduce the amount and build up slowly to an effective dose.

MSM offers relief from one of the athlete’s most dreaded companions—muscle soreness. With the buzz this supplement is creating, it looks like more and more gym bags will be carrying MSM in the future.

Recently, MSM has emerged from relatively limited clinical usage into mainstream use as a nutritional supplement. Like a tidal wave, word spread, reaching the fitness and athletic world in 1999.Health writer Martin Zucker co-authored The Miracle of MSM (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999) with Stanley Jacob, M.D., and Ronald M. Lawrence, M.D.