Holistic Treatment Relieved Coburn's Pain

At the height of actor James Coburn's career, he was sidelined by rheumatoid arthritis and all but disappeared from the screen for two decades. He said he was able to return to acting only because of a controversial, alternative therapy.

Thanks to the treatment, Coburn was able to return to a successful career that lasted right up until his death Monday of a heart attack at age 74.

Arthritis had left Coburn's body deformed and in pain. "You start to turn to stone," he told ABCNEWS in an April 1999 interview. See, my hand is twisted now because tendons have shortened."

For 20 years he tried a host of conventional and unconventional treatments, but nothing worked.

(To learn more about new treatments for arthritis pain, click here.)

"There was so much pain that … every time I stood up, I would break into a sweat," he recalled.

Then, at age 68, Coburn tried something called MSM, a sulfur compound available at most health food stores. The result, he said, was nothing short of miraculous.

"You take this stuff and it starts right away," said Coburn. "Everyone I've given it to has had a positive response."

MSM did not cure Coburn's arthritis, but it did relieve his pain, allowing him to move more freely and resume his career. In 1998, he turned in one of the greatest performances of his career, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as an abusive, alcoholic father in Affliction.

He soon began a crusade for the dietary supplement, promoting the treatment in ads.

"MSM produces its effect by being an anti-inflammatory in the joint areas, increasing blood flow and by producing muscle relaxation," said Dr. Ronald Lawrence, Coburn's physician.

Little Scientific Evidence MSM Works

While there are plenty of claims in support of MSM, there's little scientific evidence to back them up. Researchers don't know if the compound is even safe in the long term.

And many doctors now say a new generation of medications, introduced in just the last three years, has made alternative therapies such as MSM obsolete.

"We now know that we cannot simply relieve the pain of the arthritis, but we can actually prevent the progression that lead to deformities and damage to the cartilage and bone," said Dr. Steven Abramson of the New York Hospital for Joint Diseases.

In other words, arthritis patients now have medically proven treatments that can prevent the disease from ever becoming as debilitating as Coburn's was.

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