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What are Some Topical Pain Relievers?

By J. Beam
Updated May 17, 2024
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Topical pain relievers, also called topical analgesics, are often used to treat arthritis and sore muscles. There are several varieties available over the counter. Many people use them in conjunction with oral analgesics such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. Topical pain relievers are available in cream, gel, and oil form as well as infused in pain relieving pads and patches. Their benefit is the ability to apply them for location-specific joint or muscle pain control.

The three most common forms of topical pain relievers are capsaicin, counter-irritants, and salicylates. Capsaicin is a naturally occurring compound found in hot peppers. It causes burning when it comes into contact with mucus membranes. As a pain reliever, capsaicin works by blocking the pain receptors that send signals to the brain. It is sold over the counter under several brand names.

Salicylates are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants and are similar to salicylic acid, which is manufactured to produce aspirin. Used in topical pain relievers, salicylates decrease pain by reducing inflammation. Salicylates comprise some of the most popular topical pain name brand pain relievers.

Counter-irritants are substances that relieve pain by distracting the body’s transmission of pain signals through the introduction of either a cooling or burning sensation. Camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol are examples of counter-irritants. Used in topical pain relievers, counter-irritants are usually safe to use in conjunction with oral pain relievers and are often used to treat sprains, strains, and sore muscles.

Though many topical pain relievers are sold over the counter, patients should read the interaction and warning labels of any product before use. People should check with a medical professional if they are unsure which type is best for a specific condition. Using these medications for an extended period of time to treat chronic conditions such as arthritis should be done only under the advice of a healthcare professional.

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Discussion Comments
By anon304499 — On Nov 20, 2012

I have a relative with a long history of drug abuse, even making his own in his home. Unfortunately, I was at his house a couple days ago and one of his main "drug" buddies was there.

He quickly swept up a tube of some sort of analgesic ointment (which he keeps in hordes at home and acts very obsessively about) and slipped into the kitchen to whisper to his friend that he got this and it had lots of something (couldn't understand the ingredient he was whispering about). Naturally, I fear he is once again finding a way to use these OTC ointments to create something illegal.

Any ideas on what he could be doing? Or any way known that these creams can be abused for the purpose of getting high? I'm very naive about drug use since I've never had the problem, thank God.

By anon145065 — On Jan 21, 2011

I agree, the natural pain relievers based on essential oils are the most effective. I tried every otc product and the only one that worked OK was blue emu. So I've been looking online and so far my favorite is Bartenblends, because of its high potency.

By anon94514 — On Jul 08, 2010

Very good comments about the dangers of taking OTC drugs.

As an inexpensive short-term fix for aches and pains, you can’t beat it. The downside: It’s a medication so ubiquitous and common, too many people take it in too great a quantity without a thought of possible side effects.

A recent CDC study reported that hospital emergency rooms saw an estimated 1 million visits from people abusing both over-the-counter and prescription medicines - mostly painkillers and sedatives.

Taking an oral analgesic, even the seemingly innocuous aspirin (especially for seniors) is not without risk. Some of the most common aspirin side effects are stomach pain, heart burn, nausea and vomiting. An aspirin overdose or higher dosage than recommended can cause serious health issues.

It is one of the leading causes of gastrointestinal tract complications, including ulcers, minor and major bleeding. It also presents a small but serious risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

In short, an oral analgesic is not for everyone.

That’s where the over-the-counter, transdermal or pain patch comes in. These are manufactured by J&J, Chattem and a Japanese company called Hisamitsu which markets them under the Salonpas brand. They are sold in drug, big box and convenience stores.

Essentially the Salonpas products are aspirin in a patch. (They contain methyl salicylate which is an aspirin-like ingredient. Both the J&J and Chattem patches have only menthol.)

This form of drug delivery is relatively new in this country, but it’s been around for three quarters of a century in Japan.

The use of patches in Japan is especially popular with older patients, suffering from arthritis or other ailments.

When you think about it, using a patch is entirely logical. You put the medicine on where it hurts. The active ingredients, which are infused in the patch, deliver the analgesic through the skin in a steady concentration in the bloodstream over a specific period of time.

Of all the brands of OTC patches sold in this country, only the Salonpas patches are FDA approved.

I first became acquainted with the transdermal patch while living in Japan and doing research on the long-lived population of Okinawa. I noticed that the Salonpas brand of transdermal patch was very popular and later, when I moved to Hawaii about six years ago, I noted it was sold in all the local drug stores.

Nowadays over the counter patches are sold throughout the United States in chain drug stores such as Rite Aid, big box stores such as Costco and even convenience stories and supermarkets. Despite their availability, most people in this country are just becoming aware of over-the-counter transdermal patches as an alternative form of aspirin.

In geriatric medicine, pain patches can be a very useful alternative to oral analgesics especially for patients who find it find it uncomfortable (or impossible) to swallow pills. --B.Wilcox, MD

By anon37429 — On Jul 19, 2009

Thanks for this post. I tried Zostrix which worked well, and I also found a natural pain reliever (based on essential oils) that probably has worked the best. Its called Relief blend. I got it online.

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