Do topical pain relievers really work?

Health
Man applying cream to knee.

If you suffer from muscle or joint pain, you may have noticed your local pharmacy has lots of shelf space devoted to gels, creams, ointments, patches and sprays that claim to soothe aches.
But with so many out there, how do you know which one to choose—or if one will  work at all?
Dr. Channing Willoughby, who specializes in pain management at The Market Common and Murrells Inlet locations of Tidelands Health Pain Management Services, says, yes, topical pain relievers (medications that are applied to the skin over an affected area) work.
“Topical pain relievers are very well-suited for conditions that are inflammatory in nature, whether muscle or arthritic pain,” says Dr. Willoughby.
And, he says, while some variation between products is due to nothing more than branding or the specific way the product is applied, there can be important differences between them.

Three types

Over-the-counter options can be broken down into three categories: pain reducers, anesthetics and counter-irritants.
The active ingredients in topical pain reducers are the same as you would find in many oral over-the-counter pain medications but in a topical solution that allows you to apply it to a specific area where you’re experiencing pain.

Featured Article

'Oh, my aching back!' 3 steps to eliminate back pain

Read Article

Anesthetics, meanwhile, use ingredients such as lidocaine to numb the area causing pain while counter-irritants create a sensation that either warms or cools your skin, distracting your brain from pain signals. Common counter-irritants include menthol, camphor and capsaicin, which is found in hot chili peppers.
Occasionally, a topical pain reliever will be prescribed by a physician. Prescription topical pain relievers can come as pre-prepared options or they can be mixed by a compounding pharmacist.
While topical pain relievers are usually safe when taken as recommended, they can come with side effects, especially when overused. This is why Dr. Willoughby says you should always keep your physician in the loop about what you’re taking—even if it’s an over-the-counter product.

Enjoying this story? It’s free to republish. Learn more.

“Prescription pain relievers should always be taken as directed,” he says. “But even over-the-counter medication should be discussed with your provider. His or her advice can be critical to your overall pain management.”
If you start experiencing side effects such as rash or itching from a topical pain reliever, contact your doctor right away, Dr. Willoughby says. If, on the other hand, your pain is severe and topical pain relievers aren’t getting the job done, consider making an appointment with a pain management physician for further evaluation.

Sign me up for email updates

Sign up below to receive email updates from MyCarolinaLife.com.

Live Better. Learn More.

Sign up for our e-newsletter.