Topical Pain Relievers: Their Primary Ingredients & Do’s and Don’ts

If your muscles ache or your joints are painful, then topical pain killers can provide relief when applied locally on the affected area.(1) Many topical pain relievers, such as cream, gel, rubs, and sprays are available at the local drugstores.(9) Let us read in detail about topical pain relievers, their ingredients and ways to use them.

Primary Ingredients in Topical Analgesics; Creams, Sprays & Rubs

Topical pain killers or analgesics should be rubbed into or sprayed onto the skin over painful joints or muscles. Although all these products are mainly designed to relieve pain, different ingredients are used in different topical pain relievers. Some of the common primary ingredients found in prescriptive topical analgesics are:

Counterirritants: Ingredients like methyl salicylate, menthol and camphor are known as counterirritants,(2,3,4) since they create a cooling or burning sensation, which distracts the mind from pain when applied topically.(2)

Capsaicin: Capsaicin is the main component of hot chilli peppers, and is also one of the most effective ingredients in topical pain relievers.(1,6) Capsaicin proves useful in relieving diabetic nerve pain and joint pain.(5) Burning and warm tingling sensations occur when capsaicin creams are first applied on the skin,(7) but it gets better over time. This topical pain medicine may need to be applied for a few days to some weeks for pain relief to occur.

Salicylates: This is an ingredient, which gives aspirin its pain-relieving quality.(8) Salicylate is found in some creams, and when absorbed into the skin, it helps in easing pain, especially in joints close to the skin, like the fingers, elbows and knees.

Dos and Don’ts of Using Topical Analgesic Medication

For maximizing the effects and minimizing the risks of topical pain relievers, one should never apply topical pain relieving creams, gels and rubs on wounds or damaged skin, and should always read their package label and follow the mentioned directions carefully before the application of topical pain relievers.(10) These topical pain relievers should not be used along with a heating pad, as it can cause burns, and must never be kept under a tight bandage.(10) The hands should be washed properly after using topical pain relievers; and touching the eyes and genitals with the product on the hands should be avoided. People taking blood thinners or those allergic to aspirin, should consult a doctor before using topical pain relievers, which contain salicylates.

Other Natural Ways of Easing Joint and Muscle Pain Topically

Hot or cold packs, or sometimes even a combination of both, act as natural topical pain relievers and can offer relief from sore muscles and joints. Cold compression numbs sore areas and is especially useful for easing the swelling and pain of a joint injury, like a sprained ankle or an arthritis flare. Topical application of cold can decrease inflammation by constricting the blood flow to the injured area.(11,12) Cold compression can be applied using a water bottle filled with cold water and ice or with a commercial cold pack. Even commonly available home items like zipper plastic freezer, hand towel or washcloth dipped in cold water; or a bag of frozen vegetables, like corn or peas can be used for cold compression. Heat packs relax the muscles. Heat application helps in dilatation of the blood vessels, which then helps in easy transport of oxygen and blood to the affected area. Heat when used topically, also reduces the feeling of pain; and can be applied on the affected area with commercial heat packs, hot water bottles or heating pads.(12) Other ways to using heat for relieving the pain is by standing under a hot shower, soaking in a hot bathtub, and dipping a washcloth or hand towel in warm water and then applying it to painful muscles or joints. For getting maximum relief from hot or cold, without damaging the skin, either of them should be used for only 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

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