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Even physicians disagree about the effectiveness of DMSO. Dr. Frank Jobe, orthopedist for the Dodgers and a founder of the National Athletic Health Institute, says, "It's quite spectacular on soft-tissue injuries like sprains, contusions, bursitis and tendinitis. It could revolutionize sports medicine."
Dr. Robert Kerlan, another renowned sports orthopedist and a founder, with Jobe, of the NAHI, says, "DMSO has some medicinal benefits, but curing routine sports injuries isn't one of them. It's almost useless for athletes."
One source of confusion about DMSO is the fact that it acts differently on different individuals, and is even unpredictable when used by the same person, relieving symptoms one week, failing to do so the next. It's a mysterious and complicated drug.
First synthesized more than a century ago, DMSO is a natural by-product of wood-pulp manufacture and has been used for decades as an industrial solvent, paint thinner and additive in a number of chemical products. (Pulp-mill workers have found that it cleans the chrome on their cars.) By the middle of this century, it had been introduced experimentally into veterinary medicine. Then in 1961 Stanley Jacob, a University of Oregon Health Sciences Center surgeon looking for a way to supercool animal organs for transplant experiments, learned of DMSO from Robert Herschler, a chemist employed by the Crown Zellerbach paper company. (DMSO is still used in cryogenics, because mixed half and half with water, it resists freezing at—270°.) When Jacob applied DMSO to the burned skin of an assistant after a lab accident and noted a remarkable recovery, he became the "father" of DMSO. Since then Jacob has explored, with a host of medical researchers, possible uses for the drug, in ailments ranging from strokes to psychosis, from athlete's foot to baldness.
Alarmed by DMSO's sudden popularity and worried about misuse of it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the substance for medical use in 1965, citing a study that suggested it caused eye damage in laboratory rats. Since then the FDA has cleared DMSO for treatment of one condition, a bladder inflammation called interstitial cystitis. One reason the FDA has moved so cautiously is that researchers have detected cataracts in the eyes of monkeys, dogs and rats that were treated with DMSO, and there seems to be evidence that its use has damaged fetuses in hamsters. All potential users of the drug should bear in mind that the Federal Government's testers still doubt that DMSO's effects have been adequately studied.
But, so far, such adverse findings have not dampened sales. There are mail-order houses with toll-free numbers where credit cards are accepted for the purchase of industrial-grade DMSO. Sufferers from arthritis are treated with DMSO injections in Mexican clinics, and athletes who want the drug have thought up ingenious ways to obtain it. Says one Oregon runner, "A guy in our neighborhood has a dog with arthritis. Vets prescribe DMSO for it, and we all borrow the dog. He's been to more vets than any dog in America."
One of the first sports figures to use DMSO was Sam Bell, currently the track coach at Indiana University. "Back in 1962 I was the coach at Oregon State," he says. "Jacob and DMSO hadn't hit the national media yet, but I'd read about the doctor in the Oregonian. I had two pretty good runners. One had a chronic Achilles tendon problem and the other a hamstring injury. I took them to Jacob and he gave us DMSO. I can't say they would've lost otherwise, but they were both NCAA champions that year. But without the training that DMSO let them get in by relieving the pain of their injuries so fast, they wouldn't have even competed in the NCAAs."
In 1965 Pierre Piloté of the Chicago Black Hawks treated a dislocated shoulder with DMSO and was able to resume skating immediately. Also in 1965 when Sandy Koufax recovered quickly from a nagging elbow problem to pitch brilliantly in the World Series, many insiders were convinced that DMSO had done it. Koufax always denied it, and recently the Dodgers' trainer, Bill Buhler, said, "I tried it on Koufax. The only thing we got was a dry, chapped elbow."
Satchel Paige's Magic Snake Oil, which was rubbed onto his geriatric arm in the 1950s, was thought to contain DMSO, but the old Cards' trainer, Doc Bauman, says, "It was just chloroform liniment with cologne in it to cut the smell."
By 1968 DMSO was stinking up NFL locker rooms. Former Raider Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, who testified about DMSO at a Senate subcommittee hearing on medical research last summer, says, "One day I jammed my right thumb in practice and it hurt so much I couldn't make a fist. The trainer put DMSO on it and in 15 minutes the swelling and pain were gone; in 24 hours I was throwing again. It didn't work on a torn ligament, but without it I wouldn't have won the passing title in '69.