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Says Indiana's Bell, "Applying the stuff is the tricky part. If you rub it in hard, you'll burn hell out of your skin." That's what happened to the Orioles' Palmer, who says, "I use DMSO a lot, but one time I got too strong a dose and it left a burned circle on my arm. People asked if I had ringworm." Other users have had painful results because they found out—too late—that they were allergic to the drug.
Ex-Dodger Pitcher Don Stanhouse warns, "Don't buy the solvent, industrial grade. You can't tell how it's been repackaged, and contaminants will go into your body. Get at least veterinary grade DMSO and dilute it to a 60% to 65% solution with distilled water in a clean container."
Some sufferers are simply left with bad breath and the old aches and pains after using DMSO. The Golden State Warriors' trainer, Dick D'Oliva, a jolly man who stands half as high as his NBA charges, knows some of the reasons. In his Oakland Arena training room, which has so much therapy equipment it resembles a Battlestar Galactica set, D'Oliva says, "We've used DMSO on only one guy, Purvis Short. The results are inconclusive. Purvis had shin splints. He got better in three days, which is what we would get with conventional modalities. Once it burned his skin badly, and he complained about the smell. Another time we tried it on his knees and got nothing. But in pro sports trainers don't have time for controlled studies. Our job is to get the player back on the court as quickly and safely as his health will allow. So when a trainer uses DMSO, he uses ice, ultrasound, acupuncture, anything—all at the same time. He doesn't have the time to sort his treatments.
"And who knows how much is in an athlete's head? So much of rehabilitation is psychological. When grandma gave you sulphur and molasses, it worked because medicine was supposed to be awful. Maybe DMSO works the same way on some guys."
In the field of athletic injuries, the most extensive studies on DMSO's effectiveness are being carried out with FDA approval by Work Research Productions of Salt Lake City. Brigham Young University trainer Marv Robertson has been associated with that testing, specializing in strains and sprains. "After almost three years of work I have concluded that DMSO is effective on soft-tissue injuries," says Robertson. "It's erratic, but it has no side effects except an occasional rash and bad breath. It reduces recovery time by 50% on the average. It's amazing stuff. I think it should be legalized as a controlled substance.
"If aspirin were submitted to the FDA today for approval, considering the wide range of claims it makes, it would take 10 years for approval and it would be a prescription drug. And, unlike aspirin, DMSO hasn't been proven responsible for one death yet."
When all the hue and cry is set aside, when the claims that DMSO will cure quadriplegia and psychosis are laid to rest, most experts agree that it is effective in reducing pain and swelling. It may be quite useless in treating arthritis, but for athletes it appears to be a harmless, often effective anti-inflammatory agent and analgesic, what one physician calls "muscle-bound aspirin."
Oregon Orthopedist Stan James, the "runner's doctor" who treats most of America's top track and field competitors, has perhaps the most reasonable view of DMSO.
"DMSO is no miracle," he says. "It's effective, yes. But when you withhold something from the public, whether it's laetrile, marijuana, liquor or Playboy, an artificial madness is created. DMSO is not dangerous. Legalize it, and it will take its place in the pharmacology of sports medicine. People won't believe it, but miracles are few and far between. Penicillin was the last one, and DMSO is not penicillin."
The FDA is trying to speed up the creaky bureaucratic process for approving the stuff. Agency spokesmen believe the go-ahead to use DMSO as a prescription treatment for injuries could come in a year or two.