top of page
  • Writer's pictureWesley Prent

Topical Pain Relievers, Do they really work?

Updated: Jun 20

What Are Topical Pain Relievers?

Topical pain relievers are medications applied directly to the skin to alleviate pain in specific areas of the body. These products are commonly used for musculoskeletal pain, such as that associated with arthritis, muscle strains, sprains, and backaches. They come in various forms, including creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and patches.

How Do They Work?

Topical pain relievers work through a few different mechanisms, depending on their active ingredients:

  1. Counterirritants: These include substances like menthol, camphor, and methyl salicylate. They create a sensation (such as cooling or heating) on the skin that distracts the brain from deeper pain i n muscles and joints.

  2. Salicylates: Similar to the active ingredient in aspirin, salicylates (like trolamine salicylate) are absorbed through the skin to reduce inflammation and pain in the targeted area.

  3. Capsaicin: Derived from chili peppers, capsaicin works by depleting substance P, a neurochemical involved in transmitting pain signals to the brain. Over time, this reduces the sensation of pain.

  4. Local Anesthetics: Lidocaine is a common example. It numbs the area by blocking nerve signals.

  5. NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs): These include diclofenac and ibuprofen. When applied topically, they help reduce inflammation and pain at the site of application.

Effectiveness of Topical Pain Relievers

Topical pain relievers can be quite effective for localized pain. Their advantages include minimal systemic absorption, which reduces the risk of systemic side effects compared to oral medications. However, their effectiveness can vary based on the type of pain, the formulation of the product, and individual response.

  • For Osteoarthritis: NSAID-based topicals, such as diclofenac gel, have shown significant pain relief in clinical studies.

  • For Muscle Pain: Counterirritants like menthol and camphor provide immediate relief by altering the sensation on the skin.

  • For Nerve Pain: Capsaicin creams can be beneficial but may take a few weeks of regular use to achieve optimal results.

History of Topical Pain Relievers

The use of topical agents for pain relief dates back thousands of years. Ancient civilizations used natural substances like herbs, oils, and poultices for pain management. However, the development of modern topical pain relievers began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Early Examples: Liniments containing menthol and camphor were among the first commercially available products. Bengay, originally known as Ben-Gay, was introduced in the late 1800s and became widely popular for its counterirritant properties.

  • Breakthroughs in the 20th Century: The synthesis of salicylates and the development of NSAID formulations in the mid-20th century marked significant advancements. These allowed for more targeted and effective pain relief.

Notable Products

Here are a few examples of popular topical pain relievers available today:

  1. Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel: Contains diclofenac, an NSAID, and is commonly used for arthritis pain. It is one of the most effective and widely used topical NSAIDs.

  2. Aspercreme: Contains trolamine salicylate and provides relief from arthritis and muscle pain without the strong odor of menthol.

  3. Biofreeze: A menthol-based gel that offers immediate cooling relief for sore muscles and joints. It is popular among athletes and individuals with musculoskeletal pain.

  4. Capzasin-HP: Contains capsaicin and is used for long-term relief of nerve pain. It requires consistent use to build up its pain-relieving effects.

  5. Salonpas: Available in patches, these products contain a combination of menthol, camphor, and methyl salicylate. They provide sustained relief over several hours.


Topical pain relievers play a crucial role in managing localized pain with fewer systemic side effects than oral medications. They offer diverse mechanisms of action, making them suitable for various types of pain. From ancient herbal remedies to modern scientific formulations, these products have evolved significantly and continue to provide effective pain relief for millions of people worldwide.

If you would like to keep up to date on latest post, signup above.

3 views0 comments


bottom of page