We all know Epsom salt, don’t we? This paper provides an interesting history of it: The purgative effect of the waters of Epsom, in southern England, was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. Epsom subsequently developed as one of the great English spas where high society flocked to take the medicinal waters. The extraction of the Epsom Salts from the spa waters and their chemical analysis, the essential feature of which was magnesium sulphate, were first successfully carried out by Doctor Nehemiah Grew, distinguished as a physician, botanist and an early Fellow of the Royal Society. His attempt to patent the production and sale of the Epsom Salts precipitated a dispute with two unscrupulous apothecaries, the Moult brothers. This controversy must be set against the backcloth of the long-standing struggle over the monopoly of dispensing of medicines between the Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.
Epsom salt has the reputation of being very safe. But unfortunately, even something as seemingly harmless as Epsom salt can become dangerous in the hand of people who have little understanding of physiology and medicine. Indian doctors have just published a paper in (‘BMJ Case Reports’) with the details of a 38-year-old non-alcoholic, non-diabetic man suffering from gallstones. The patient was prescribed three tablespoons of Epsom salt to be taken with lukewarm water for 15 days for ‘stone dissolution’ by a ‘naturopathy practitioner’. He subsequently developed loss of appetite and darkening of urine from the 12th day of treatment and jaundice from the second day after treatment completion. The patient denied fevers, skin rash, joint pains, myalgia, abdominal pain, abdominal distension and cholestatic symptoms.
Examination revealed a deeply icteric patient oriented to time, place and person without an enlarged liver or stigmata of chronic liver disease. Liver function tests were abnormal, and a liver biopsy revealed sub-massive necrosis with dense portal-based fibrosis, mixed portal inflammation, extensive peri-venular canalicular and hepatocellular cholestasis with macro-vesicular steatosis and peri-sinusoidal fibrosis (suggestive of steato-hepatitis) without evidence of granulomas, inclusion bodies or vascular changes suggestive of acute drug-induced liver injury.
After discontinuation of Epsom salt and adequate hydration, the patient had an uneventful recovery with normalisation of liver function tests after 38 days. The Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment score was strongly suggestive of Epsom salt-induced liver injury.
I was invited to provide a comment and stated that, in my view, this case reminds us:
1) that naturopaths prescribe a lot of nonsense,
2) that not everything which is promoted as natural is safe,
3) that treatments which apparently have ‘stood the test of time’ can still be rubbish, and
4) that even a relatively harmless remedy can become life-threatening, if one takes it at a high dose for a prolonged period of time.
Naturopaths have advocated Epsom salt for gall-bladder problems since centuries, yet there is no good evidence that it works. It is time that alternative practitioners abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine.
A quick Medline search reveals that there is only one further report of a serious adverse effect after Epsom salt intake: a case of fatal hypermagnesemia caused by an Epsom salt enema. A 7-year-old male presented with cardiac arrest and was found to have a serum magnesium level of 41.2 mg/dL (33.9 mEq/L) after having received an Epsom salt enema earlier that day. The medical history of Epsom salt, the common causes and symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the treatment of hypermagnesemia are reviewed. The easy availability of magnesium, the subtle initial symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the need for education about the toxicity of magnesium should be of interest to physicians.
… and to alternative practitioners, I hasten to add.