The truth about topical pain relievers

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When it comes to persistent muscular and joint pain, reaching for oral painkillers isn’t always enough. Regularly taking painkillers such as ibuprofen can actually cause your body harm.

Topical pain relievers are those you apply to your skin rather than take orally. They can be fast or slow acting, depending on the type. This form of pain relief may be used in conjunction with or instead of oral painkillers, especially for people experiencing pain associated with arthritis. Topical painkillers include heat and cold packs, and a range of gels, creams and sprays.

Hot packs
Heat packs reduce feelings of pain and relax your muscles. They cause blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood and oxygen into the area. You can use a hot water bottle, buy commercial heat packs or use a hand towel dipped in warm water. Taking a hot shower or bath also helps to relax joints.

Cold packs
Cold packs can help to numb sore areas. You can buy them from a chemist or make your own. You can fill a water bottle or ziplock bag with cool water and ice, use a bag of frozen peas or even dip a hand towel in icy water. These packs can help to reduce inflammation, as the cold causes vasoconstriction, the shrinking of blood vessels, reducing the movement of blood flow to the area. It is particularly effective on joint injuries or in helping ease the pain of arthritis. If you have problems with circulation, or have vasculitis, avoid using a cold pack.

How to use packs safely:

  • If you have sensitive skin, place a hand towel between the cold or hot pack and your skin.
  • Don’t use heat or cold packs for more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Don’t use heat or cold packs on open wounds or sores.
  • Test the temperatures of packs – particularly heat packs – before using them.

Types of topical pain relief
While all the creams, gels, rubs and sprays are designed to relieve pain, they contain different ingredients, meaning they do it in different ways. There are three main types of ingredient.

These ingredients can be found in aspirin, making it a pain reliever. In topical pain relievers, they are absorbed through the skin. They are most effective at relieving pain in joints such as the knuckles, elbows and knees as they are close to the skin. If you are taking blood thinners, or are allergic to aspirin, consult your doctor before using any pain relievers containing salicylates.

These ingredients, such as methyl salicylate (also known as evergreen), menthol and camphor, don’t actually treat pain, but rather distract your mind by causing a burning or cooling sensation on the skin.

Capsaicin is one of the most effective ingredients in topical pain relievers. When applied, topicals containing capsaicin cause a tingling or burning sensation, which eases over time. While it is best suited for joint pain and diabetic nerve pain, it may take a few days to a few weeks of use before you feel any pain relief.

How to use topical pain relief safely:

  • do not apply to an open wound of damaged skin
  • do not use under a tight bandage
  • wear gloves or wash your hands well after applying
  • avoid touching your face or genitals after applying
  • do not use topical pain relievers alongside heat pads as this may cause burns
  • always read the instructions on the package and follow directions carefully.

Do you use topical pain relief? If you have any recommendations for other readers, leave them in the comment section below.

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.


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Written by Liv Gardiner


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