No drug is without risks

Here’s a tragic story:

NEW YORK – A medical examiner blamed a 17-year-old track star’s death on the use of too much muscle cream, the kind used to soothe aching legs after exercise.

Arielle Newman, a cross-country runner at Notre Dame Academy on Staten Island, died after her body absorbed high levels of methyl salicylate, an anti-inflammatory found in sports creams such as Bengay and Icy Hot, the New York City medical examiner said Friday.

The medical examiner’s spokeswoman, Ellen Borakove, said the teen used “topical medication to excess.” She said it was the first time that her office had reported a death from using a sports cream.

Newman, who garnered numerous track awards, died April 13. She had gone to a party the night before, then returned home and spent hours talking with her mother.

This is, of course, highly unusual. When Arielle died two months ago while other reports mentioned two boys accosting her in a park, the cause seemed a mystery and speculation was that she had been drinking too much. It turns out that that wasn’t the case. However, chronic use has been associated with problems:

Methyl salicylate poisoning is unusual, and deaths from high levels of the chemical are rare.

“Chronic use is more dangerous than one-time use,” Edward Arsura, chairman of medicine at Richmond University Medical Center, told the Staten Island Advance on Friday. “Exercise and heat can accentuate absorption.”

Dr. Ronald Grelsamer, of Mount Sinai Medical Center, said Newman had a very abnormal amount of methyl salicylate in her body.

“She either lathered herself with it, or used way too much, or she used a normal amount and an abnormal percentage was absorbed into her body,” he said.

Newman’s mother expressed the sentiment that most people probably would have:

Her mother, Alice Newman, said she still couldn’t believe her daughter’s death was caused by a sports cream.

“I am scrupulous about my children’s health,” she told the Advance. “I did not think an over-the-counter product could be unsafe.”

It’s important to remember that the dose makes the poison. It is not described how large Arielle Newman was, but if she were a relatively small, light girl it would take less of any substance to result in poisoning. Also, although these days it is usually chemically synthesized rather than being distilled from plant oils, it’s important to note that methyl salicylate is a natural product, sometimes known as oil of wintergreen after the type of plant from which it has been traditionally isolated. Moreover, methyl salicylate is the most toxic of the salicylates, with doses of less than 1 teaspoon having been fatal in young children. Presumably, Arielle must have slathered quite a bit of the stuff on herself to absorb a fatal dose. It’s also been speculated that using the sports creams on skin warm and moist from heavy workouts could have led to her absorbing more methyl salicylate.

However this happened, it should stand as a sobering reminder that any chemical substance, be it a natural product or a drug, that has a physiologic effect has the potential to cause harm.


  1. #1 ArtK
    June 9, 2007

    What’s the half-life for topical methyl salicylate?

  2. #2 AnnR
    June 9, 2007

    Most cross-country runners I’ve known have been slim. If she was training constantly and using it all the time that might have been enough.

    I certainly think about OTC cold pills being potentially dangerous, but a lotion is not something that immediately comes to mind.

    It’s awfully sad and I”m going to send this to my friend whose daughter is a gymnastic.

  3. #3 Ranson
    June 9, 2007

    We make methyl sal creams and products where I work. It does tend to work more easily into warm skin, but depending on the percentage in the cream (ours is about 15%, some of the bigger brands range up to 40-50%), it would take a lot to do much of anything. Heck, there was a time I fell into a puddle of the pure stuff after a spill and soaked my clothes. Having no spares and not feeling like an emergency shower, I just left everything on and in contact with my skin. No ill effects. Now, as much weight as anecdotal evidence carries, plus the fact I probably outweigh this kid by two hundred pounds, my experience doesn’t mean much. But, I think that an average strength sports cream would take far more than the usual 2-oz tube full to cause an ill effect. However, frequent, excessive, or long-term use could be a different story.

  4. #4 PennyBright
    June 9, 2007

    I am acquainted with people who find the hot/cool effect of such creams arousing when applied to certain sensitive areas.

    I think I may have to mention this specific danger to them. It’s certainly not a risk that would be intuitive.

  5. #5 tim gueguen
    June 9, 2007

    The Canadian cartoon show 6teen actually had an episode where one of the characters gets in trouble from using too much muscle cream. Of course it was played for laughs, with the character having to push himself around on a skateboard with his chin after his arms and legs go completely numb when he uses a whole tube on himelf.

  6. #6 sailor
    June 9, 2007

    Do they carry warning lables? If not, I would see grounds for a legal case.

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