Western Horseman, April,
Reprinted with permission
THE FOOD supplement known to horsemen as MSM has helped
ease a number of ailments in equines young and old since
it appeared about 12 years ago.
Its name is as tough to pronounce as it is to spell -methylsulfonylmethane.
Its discoverer, Robert Herschler, a chemist in Camas,
Wash., has registered the substance under the acronym
MSM and that is how it is marketed. In appearance, it
is a white crystalline powder.
MSM is credited with clearing up and, more importantly,
preventing, epiphysitis in fast-growing young horses;
relieving a variety of lameness problems; reducing inflammation
and enhancing circulation; providing relief from arthritis.
... the list goes on.
Although horsemen and veterinarians who have used MSM
boast of these accomplishments for the product, you won't
see such claims in either advertising or on the label.
If such claims were to be made, MSM would fall under the
drug category as established by the Food and Drug Administration.
Then, long and expensive tests would be required to validate
the stated benefits before it could be marketed.
MSM is sold as a nutrient -which it truly is - and thus
does not come under the same FDA guidelines as do drugs.
A veterinarian who was in the forefront in using MSM
is Dr. John Metcalf, now retired, of Vancouver, Washington.
Early in the development of MSM, discoverer Herschler
turned to Dr. Metcalf in an effort to determine whether
the substance had therapeutic value for horses.
Dr. Metcalf used MSM widely in his practice, even to
the point of administering it to horses as a last-ditch
effort before euthanasia. Some of the results were dramatic.
A young Thoroughbred filly suffering from a severe case
of epiphysitis (inflammation of the growth center just
above the knee) had the condition totally clear up within
3 weeks after being placed on MSM. A Thoroughbred jumper
with chronic back problems had the condition disappear
after being given MSM in his daily diet, and he went on
to a successful career.
MSM is not some powerful cure-all with mystical healing
powers, says Dr. Metcalf. "It basically accomplishes
two things - it reduces inflammation and enhances circulation."
And when that is the case, he believes, many equine problems
will clear up.
The history of MSM dates back to the 1950s when Herschler
was employed as a chemist for Crown Zellerbach Corporation
(now James River) of Portland, Oregon. The paper-processing
company asked Herschler to find additional uses for one
of its by-products known as dimethyl-sulfoxide, DMSO for
Herschler's experiments returned some interesting results.
It was discovered that when DMSO was applied to an inflamed
joint or to an area where injury had occurred to muscles
and ligaments, the inflammation quickly dissipated and
the horse had almost instant relief.
In the early going, Herschler ran into an FDA roadblock
because federal officials felt the substance was toxic.
They have since relented on that point, admitting that
it is not toxic.
Dr. Metcalf was in the forefront in using DMSO in his
veterinary practice, which was restricted to horses only.
He recalls one of the first times he used it intravenously:
"I had a dummy foal who acted retarded," he
said. "The foal wouldn't nurse and it was apparent
to me that he was going to die. Because I couldn't come
up with any other solution, I got to wondering if there
were areas in the brain in which, due to the trauma of
birth and all, there might be poor circulation. Then I
got to wondering what I had that would enhance circulation.
"That brought me to DMSO and I mentioned it to the
owner, telling him that I didn't know if it would work,
but that the foal was probably going to die anyway. He
said to go ahead, so I put 10 ccs of diluted DMSO into
this foal intravenously. It was hard to believe, but the
next day he was a 100 percent normal baby."
There were a couple of drawbacks to DMSO that remain
today. Although it quickly penetrates to the source of
the problem in a joint or tissue, it just as quickly leaves.
Herschler explained its action this way: "It's like
when you take an aspirin for a severe headache. It's into
the bloodstream in 10 to 15 minutes and it's out in a
couple of hours; then your headache is back, so you have
to take more aspirin." But despite its quick action
and equally quick disappearance, DMSO seemed to have long-term
Another problem with DMSO is the bad breath and dry,
itchy skin it causes when applied.
MSM and Sulfur
In about 1975, Herschler began doing research with
a metabolite of DMSO, which is called methylsulfonylmethane
or MSM. It appeared that this fraction of the original
was the element that produced long-term beneficial effects.
And, as a bonus, MSM did not have DMSO's side effects
of producing foul breath and itchy skin.
Because the FDA was still declaring DMSO to be toxic,
one of the first experiments conducted by Herschler with
MSM was to determine toxicity. The results of his tests
proved MSM was not toxic.
At about the same time, some experiments were conducted
on human patients suffering from scleroderma, a condition
where the skin and organs lose their elasticity. It can
cause death as the skin continues to shrink in suffocating
fashion. It was found that MSM softened the skin of scleroderma
patients returning much of its former elasticity.
At this point, Herschler was elated, but a little bewildered.
He knew the compound was doing positive things in several
areas, but he wasn't sure why, though he did have a theory.
His theory involved sulfur. His quest for information
was difficult because there was very little in research
and medical literature about sulfur and the role it plays.
Dr. Herschlers research revealed that MSM is the prime
source of bioavailable sulfur. Furthermore, because of
sulfur's fragility, most animals and humans are sulfur-deficient.
"MSM," Herschler says, "is shy, evasive,
and escape-prone. While present naturally when food is
very fresh, it can be driven out of any food by even moderate
processing, including the cutting and drying of hay."
This led to the conclusion that adult horses fed processed
hay and grain may very well be sulfur-deficient. Normally,
foals wont have a sulfur deficiency, he said, because
mare's milk is rich in sulfur. Mares make available to
the foal much of the sulfur they ingest. The result can
be a mare with a reduced sulfur supply for her own body.
Sulfur, it has been learned, plays many roles in a horse's
body, such as stimulating the growth of hair, hide, and
hoofs, connective tissue and enzymes, hormones, and immuno-globulins
Thus, Herschler reasons, many of MSM's beneficial effects
occur as a result of restoring a proper sulfur level.
However, the benefits of MSM transcend that basic explanation.
For example, both Herschler and Dr. Mettcalf suffered
from several respiratory allergies. They found that when
they ingested MSM, the allergies cleared up. When they
stopped taking MSM, the allergies returned.
A friend of Herschler's suffered from a severe case of
emphysema. She began taking MSM. The results were spectacular.
Before taking MSM, she could barely walk across the room
without gasping for breath. After about 3 weeks of taking
MSM, she could walk a third of a mile.
|Editor's Note: Those people wishing
to try MSM themselves should do so only after consulting
with a medical doctor.
Dr. Metcalf discovered that MSM could ameliorate the
effects of arthritis. "We had an old dog who was
arthritic," he said. "We had her on four bute
(phenylbutazone) tablets a day, and we still had to help
her to her feet. We put her on MSM and removed the bute.
After a short while on MSM, nobody had to help her to
her feet. We got another 2 years out of that old girl.
"In horses", Dr. Metcalf continued, "I
used MSM anytime that I wanted to reduce inflammation
and enhance circulation. That's the name of the game in
getting repair of an inflamed or damaged part."
In the process he recorded a number of successes in horses
suffering from back problems. These have included jumpers,
race horses, reining horses, and 3-day eventers.
The competitions in which these horses engage put severe
strain on the back, he explained, and when problems occur
they are hard to diagnose and difficult to treat.
"The sacroiliac is very deep", he said, "and
I don't care what you put on the surface, it's not going
to get down to where the problem is. With MSM, you can
go through the system." One of the success stories
was close to home for Dr. Metcalf. His daughter's jumper
exhibited signs of back pain and was functioning poorly
in the show ring. The horse was placed on MSM and within
a week did a complete turnabout. No longer were his ears
back and his tail swishing as a result of the pain. Instead,
the horse was taking jumps eagerly and doing well in competition.
Dr. Metcalf is of the opinion that many of today's race
horses and competition horses suffer back problems. "I'm
sure we have a lot of race horses with sacroiliac problems,"
he said. "It's like with our lower back. If you have
a problem with your lower back, you don't stride right
out. You take short steps. It would be the same with a
race horse. If he has problems with his back, he isn't
going to stride right out, either. When you think of the
distance of a mile, one single second is the difference
between a nice horse and one who just got beat by one.
You shorten his stride just a part of an inch and you
are going to get him beat."
MSM and Epiphysitis
One of the most positive uses that can be made of
MSM, Dr. Metcalf believes, is in the prevention of epiphysitis
among fast-growing foals following weaning. Although MSM
can clear up epiphysitis, he said, the best news is that
a small amount daily in the youngster's diet seems to
Epiphysitis is an inflammatory condition at the end
of the long bones in a horse's legs where growth takes
place. A number of factors may be involved when epiphysitis
occurs. One of the causes is overfeeding with a high protein
diet. If the young animal is overfed to the point that
his body grows faster than his bones can develop to support
the weight, inflammation that brings with it extreme soreness
is the result. Stress and disease are additional causes
of epiphysitis. An imbalance of calcium and phosphorus
may also be a cause.
|Editor's Note: Although MSM may
help prevent epiphysitis, horsemen should continue
to use extreme caution in feeding excessive amounts
of grain to promote growth.
The most dramatic result Dr. Metcalf witnessed in the
curative facet occurred with a young Thoroughbred filly
who was slated for an auction, but first had to pass a
soundness examination in 3 weeks from the time Dr. Metcalf
was called to the farm. The filly had severe epiphysitis.
"It was so painful to her," he recalled, "that
they could hardly get her to walk out of the stall. We
put her on MSM right away and she passed that inspection
Dr. Metcalf also found that MSM could be beneficial when
dealing with problems of the intestinal tract. He was
once called by a lady in Georgia who owned a valuable
Arabian stallion who had chronic diarrhea that stubbornly
resisted all traditional treatments. The horse was becoming
so debilitated that the owner was considering euthanasia.
Her call to Dr. Metcalf was a last-gasp effort to save
He shipped her some MSM and in a matter of days the horse's
feces firmed up, and within 6 weeks he was functioning
Dr. Metcalf also has recorded successes with MSM in clearing
up gastric ulcers in foals.
In a number of instances, Dr. Metcalf turned to MSM to
help remedy lameness problems. Two national level show
horses in Dr. Metcalf's former practice could compete
in fine form when on MSM, but were unsound when not ingesting
In another instance, a Thoroughbred with bad legs could
run well enough to win when on MSM, but went lame without
Horses whose diets include MSM also show a more rapid
growth of hoof and a glossier hair coat. In addition,
MSM has indicated the ability to kill internal parasites.
Despite all the successes he had with MSM when he
was a practicing veterinarian, Dr. Metcalf is quick to
say that the supplement is not some miraculous cure-all.
"We can't expect it to be a miracle," he said.
"We must determine the cause of discomfort and make
sure the cause no longer exists, because no matter what
you do, if the cause is still there, the problem will
return when you discontinue treatment. Obviously, if there
are joint chips in a horse's knee, you might get some
temporary relief from MSM, but it isn=t going to make
Although Herschler did not have the same problems
with the Food and Drug Administration relative to MSM
that he did in the early days with DMSO, there have been
Three times during the past 5 years Herschler has filed
lawsuits against producers of a product that he claimed
infringed on his patents. Though he did not receive monetary
redress, two court rulings were in his favor. In the other
combined case, he has been granted an agreed-to injunction
against one company and a hearing is pending with the
At the moment, Herschler said, only two companies in
the world are manufacturing pure MSM under his patents.
One is Cardinal Associates Inc. in Vancouver, Wash., and
the other is a company in Japan that serves a growing
Both companies, Herschler said, run extensive analyses
on each lot produced to make certain the product is pure
In the United States, Herschler said, there are five
or six major distributors who market the product through
a variety of outlets.
Though Herschler has been successful in his courtroom
efforts to prevent infringement, the results have not
been 100 percent. Still at issue, for example, is his
exclusive use of the trademark symbol - an R encased in
a circle - and affixed to MSM.
Horsemen wanting to be certain they are purchasing pure
MSM, he said, should check the container for three patent
numbers. All of the pure MSM produced by Cardinal Associates
Inc. and the Japanese firm contain three patent numbers
on each container.
In summary ... although MSM is growing in popularity,
so is its parent product, DMSO. Generally speaking, DMSO
is frequently used as a topical treatment for inflammation
while MSM is administered in the feed to treat the animal
Les Sellnow is a free-lance journalist and lifelong horseman
whose magazine writing focuses on equine research. He
lives in Riverton, Wyoming.
"It must be greener
or they wouldn't have a fence here!"
|"Doggone it...I forgot
her MSM again!"