How MSM and DMSO Can Correct Horse Ailments | Equine Clinical Research

Western Horseman, April, 1996
Reprinted with permission

These related products have helped correct several equine ailments.
By Les Sellnow

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 short.

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 therapeutic value.

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 prevent it.

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 just fine."

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 the horse.

He shipped her some MSM and in a matter of days the horse's feces firmed up, and within 6 weeks he was functioning normally.

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 it.

In another instance, a Thoroughbred with bad legs could run well enough to win when on MSM, but went lame without it.

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.

No Cure-All

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 him sound."

Legal Problems

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 other concerns.

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 other.

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 foreign market.

Both companies, Herschler said, run extensive analyses on each lot produced to make certain the product is pure MSM.

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 systemically.

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!"