Sulfur

Sulfur is a naturally-occurring mineral that is found mostly near hot springs and volcanic craters. It has a distinct "rotten egg" smell, caused by sulfur dioxide gas escaping into the air. As a supplement, sulfur is available in two forms: dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). About 15% of DMSO breaks down into MSM in the body. Both have been touted as treatments for pain.

MSM occurs naturally in some plants, such as horsetail, fruits and vegetables, some grains, and milk. MSM is important in joint health and helps form the connective tissues including cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. It may also reduce pain by slowing the nerve impulses that transmit pain signals.

DMSO is a chemical byproduct of paper making and is used as an industrial solvent, as well as for medicine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved DMSO for intravesical use. That means it is instilled in the bladder by a doctor to treat interstitial cystitis. DMSO is also used in creams and taken by mouth for pain and other conditions. Unlike MSM, DMSO is absorbed through the skin.

Never use industrial-grade DMSO as a supplement. It may contain dangerous impurities. Talk to your doctor before taking DMSO internally or applying it to your skin.

Mud baths containing sulfur, often called balneotherapy, can help treat skin disorders and arthritis. Balneotherapy is one of the oldest forms of pain relief for people with arthritis. The term "balneo" comes from the Latin word for bath and means soaking in thermal or mineral waters. Some people claim these baths are useful for allergies and respiratory problems. But there is no scientific evidence for these uses.

People also apply sulfur products to the skin to treat acne and other skin conditions.

Many studies suggest there may be a connection between sulfur gases in the environment and the rise in allergy and respiratory illnesses, particularly asthma.

Skin disorders

Sulfur baths, and other methods for applying sulfur to the skin, may help treat:

Arthritis

Allergic rhinitis (hay fever)

One preliminary study found that taking 2,600 mg of MSM per day for 30 days reduced symptoms of seasonal allergies. More research is needed.

Shingles

Topical DMSO has been proposed as a treatment to relieve pain and inflammation of shingles (herpes zoster). Some evidence suggests it may reduce the number of lesions and lower inflammation. More research is needed.

Interstitial cystitis

Although research is limited, the FDA has approved DMSO to treat interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder inflammation that causes frequent and nighttime urination, as well as pain. When DMSO is used to treat interstitial cystitis, a doctor inserts a liquid solution of DMSO directly into the bladder. General anesthesia may be needed because the procedure can be painful and may cause bladder spasms.

Amyloidosis

Several case reports suggest that DMSO, applied in creams or taken by mouth, may help treat amyloidosis, a condition where protein builds up in the body's organs and damages them. However, because the condition is rare, there are no scientific studies about DMSO and amyloidosis. Take DMSO, or apply it in creams, only under your doctor's supervision.

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Review Date: 10/19/2015  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M Editorial team.

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