The horse drug athletes used for joint health

As a senior in the chemistry department here at Lawrence, I have seen more than my fair share of interesting chemical compounds. From fluorescent molecules to cancer-causing Benzene and the good old-fashioned Chloroform that has appeared in a good few action thrillers in kidnapping scenes over the years, the Steitz and Youngchild Halls of Science are one improperly placed cigarette away from a chemical explosion that would make the school as internationally known as Harvard (for the wrong reasons). But among all of the crazy compounds that will probably give me cancer in 20-30 years, there is one that stands out in my mind as the most memorable.  

Dimethyl Sulfoxide, better known as DMSO, is an extremely polar solvent used in a number of organic syntheses. DMSO and I have had our bouts in recent weeks as I pursue a novel synthesis for my capstone project, with my lingering impression surrounding one thing: the smell. DMSO has an odd odor that is uncannily close to an over-garlicked pasta sauce, and it tends to stick; if you get the stuff on your hands, good luck getting it out. I routinely find myself needing to step away from my hood in order not to gag.  

This is precisely the reaction many athletic trainers had in the latter half of the 20th century as this obscure organic solvent found its way into the realm of sports medicine. As it turns out, DMSO doesn’t just stick, it actually penetrates the skin and makes its way through soft tissues incredibly easily. And as a result of its incredibly polar Sulfur-Oxygen double bond, it tends to take impurities with it, resulting in an increased rate of recovery for soft tissue injuries. In some reported cases, recovery rates were increased exponentially from weeks to mere days or even hours. For this reason, many athletes like former Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica have called DMSO a “miracle drug.”  

The drug remained in limbo despite widespread usage across major athletic leagues due to its illegal nature. It was only available in the medical context for a rare kidney condition in humans, or as a medication to solve conditions like edemas in horses, dogs and more. But given its lack of noticeable side-effects at the time, enforcement of laws regarding DMSO went unenforced for decades, and athletes and trainers alike continued to procure and prescribe the clear liquid for all sorts of ailments. Lamonica has reported being unable to use his thumb after a particularly bad jam, only for it to be seemingly completely returned to health by soaking in DMSO around two hours later. Others used the chemical for routine recovery. Alberto Salazar, one of the world’s premier distance runners in the early 1980s, reported in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article that routine joint maintenance was greatly enhanced in his experience by using DMSO. JD Reed, the author of the article, described meeting Salazar after a workout and being overpowered by the pungent fragrance of the stuff as the runner soaked his knee to recover from a minor strain and explained that “A strain like this used to keep [him] from training for four or five days, but with DMSO [he could] run full strength again in 24 to 48 hours.” Such recovery became a crucial part of his and others’ training plans as it allowed for higher training volume with minimized negative consequences.  

But as is the case with most miracle drugs, there was a catch: athletes simply didn’t know it yet. As it turns out, more recent research indicates that medicated use of DMSO for recovery by direct exposure to the skin or internal extremities can cause a variety of medical issues. Among these are gastrointestinal issues, which may be accompanied by symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. But perhaps the most ironic negative outcome is an increased rate of degradation of key soft tissue like cartilage and ligaments. By a mechanism beyond the scope of this article, DMSO usage results in clumping of red blood cells as the site of use as well as the coating of the interior of arterioles. This in turn brings about poor circulation that leads to impaired tissue regeneration over time, essentially undoing any immediate positive effects of the drug.  

DMSO use among athletes has quieted mightily in the last few decades, though I have been unable to find any confirmation that it has since been banned in professional or amateur sports. It remains in a limbo state of sorts, used by doctors in specific cases for arthritis treatment or other non-life-threatening instances, with its efficacy still largely debated.