The 9 Best Arthritis Creams of 2021

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First Look

Best Overall: Biofreeze Professional Relief Aerosol Colorless at Amazon

"Its smooth consistency absorbs fast, and the rollerball helps massage the gel into affected areas."

Best Cream: Dr. Sayman’s Wonder Rub at Amazon

"It contains max strength lidocaine alongside a botanical blend that aims to desensitize aggravated nerves."

Best Anti-Inflammatory: Tiger Balm Arthritis Rub at Amazon

"Isn’t greasy and doesn't contain skin-drying alcohol."

Best No-Mess Application: Salonpas Pain Relieving Patches at Amazon

"The adhesive is as strong as the pain relief and cooling sensation, so patches stay put for over five hours, according to multiple customers."

Best Homeopathic: Naturopathica Arnica Gel at Amazon

"Customers can’t say enough good things about this go-to natural product."

Best Gel: Voltaren Topical Arthritis Relief Gel at Amazon

"It relieves arthritis aches, improves mobility, and reduces stiffness for overall arthritis joint pain support."

Best with Capsaicin: Zostrix Maximum Strength at Amazon

"It's designed to provide relief through the numbing heat feeling it creates."

Best Odor-Free: Aspercreme Odor-Free Max Strength with Lidocaine at Amazon

"Both fragrance-free and designed with a rollerball to make getting the product to where you need it easier."

Best for After Exercising: Sportscreme Deep Penetrating Pain Relieving Rub at Amazon

"A good option for those with arthritis who may have overdone it on a particular day with physical activities."

Arthritis is a debilitating and persistent condition. In 2012, an estimated 52.5 million people in the U.S. had arthritis or one of the rheumatic diseases. That number is expected to increase to nearly 80 million people by 2040. But there are plenty of over-the-counter treatment options including creams, lotions, gels, and oils with anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and additional properties to relieve pain.

“Topical medications for pain relief come in multiple forms—creams, gels, patches, etc.,” says Dena Barsoum, MD, a physiatrist at HSS. “Consider what body part you are applying it to and what form might work best for you. It’s always important to look closely at the active ingredients in any medication you use. Over-the-counter medications sometimes have very flashy packaging and make grand claims about what they can do."

“I always look at the active ingredients and their mechanism of action to see if it makes sense,” says Dr. Barsoum. “Some of these medications include numbing or anti-inflammatory chemicals and that’s how those work. Others include active ingredients, which can stimulate a warm sensation (like using a warm compress) or a cold sensation (like using an ice pack). Others contain other chemicals that can sort of distract you (and your body) from your pain. In general, pain at the neck, shoulders, elbow, hands, knees, ankles, and feet may be amenable to treatment with topical medications.”

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Product formulas include distinct active ingredients so each individual should test what works best for their arthritis symptoms and lifestyle.

Here are a few of the best arthritis creams on the market.

Best Overall: Biofreeze Professional Relief Aerosol Colorless

Pros
  • Smooth, fast-absorbing consistency

  • Rollerball option makes application easier

  • Fast-acting

Cons
  • Some may find it hard to press down on spray nozzle

  • Spray version can be messy

Biofreeze comes with a clinically recommended seal, and it’s a longtime trusted brand for arthritis pain relief. The four-ounce colorless spray offers fast-acting relief and it might be the best version yet. Its smooth consistency absorbs fast. There is also a rollerball version that helps massage the gel into affected areas.

The active ingredient is menthol, which creates cooling sensations and temporary pain relief. It penetrates quickly to relieve pain on the back and all joints from the neck down to the ankle. The spray nozzle has continuous flow even when upside down to get those hard-to-reach aches.

Active Ingredients: Menthol | Dose: Spray affected area no more than four times a day | Uses: Temporary relief from minor aches and pains of joints and/or muscles

Best Cream: Dr. Sayman’s Wonder Rub

Pros
  • Instant cooling sensation

  • Very little odor

Cons
  • Product can be sticky

  • Some users report feeling nothing (no cooling sensation, pain relief, etc.) when using this product

Three powerful pain fighters give this creamy oil a punch. It contains max strength lidocaine alongside a botanical blend that aims to desensitize aggravated nerves. Together, they dull pain, reduce inflammation and swelling, and relieve stiff joints. “Lidocaine, a numbing medication, is a common ingredient in over-the-counter topical medications and can be very helpful. It comes in multiple forms, sometimes combined with other medications,” says Dr. Barsoum.

The time-tested formula has 150 plus years of history to its credit, which boasts a pleasant texture and efficient pain relief on hands, feet, and other achy areas. Arnica creates an instant cooling sensation, while hemp oil targets inflammation and cannabinoid receptors. It’s clear and has almost no odor.

Active Ingredients: Lidocaine, hemp oil, and arnica | Dose: A thin layer applied to affected areas every 6 to 8 hours (not exceeding 3 applications in 24 hours) | Uses: Temporarily relieves minor pain

What the Experts Say

“First and foremost, anyone considering arthritis cream or gel should discuss using the product with their orthopaedic surgeon or primary care physician to ensure it is being used appropriately and for the correct indication.” Rachel Frank, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth and director of the Joint Preservation Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine

Best Anti-Inflammatory: Tiger Balm Arthritis Rub

Pros
  • Natural ingredients

  • Good value

  • Pump makes it easy to dispense

Cons
  • Some people find it works better on muscle pain than joint pain

  • Smell may be overpowering for some

Containing a blend of natural herbal ingredients, Tiger Balm Arthritis Rub provides safe, fast, budget-friendly relief from arthritis joint pain and muscle aches. If you're experiencing symptoms like redness, warmth, and swelling, look for something with anti-inflammatory properties, like menthol and camphor, which are both ingredients in this product.

Dispensed from an easy-to-use arthritis-friendly pump, this anti-inflammatory topical lotion isn’t greasy and doesn't contain skin-drying alcohol. While it's typically used for deep pain relief, like sore muscles, it can also be used for superficial pain, like shingles.

Active Ingredients: Camphor and menthol | Dose: Apply to affected areas no more than 3 to 4 times daily | Uses: Temporary relief of minor muscle and/or joint pain

Best No-Mess Application: Salonpas Pain Relieving Patches

Pros
  • Patch, so it doesn’t stain or make a mess

  • Comes in two sizes; can trim to fit a particular area

Cons
  • Strong aroma

  • Some people find the patches won’t stay on their skin

These patches put all the pain-relieving ingredients right where you need them. It's a no muss, no fuss product with three powerful analgesics: camphor, menthol, and methyl salicylate.

These patches are available in standard and large sizes, depending on what area you need to treat. Crafty customers also recommend trimming the patches into strips to pinpoint pain and avoid waste. The adhesive is as strong as the pain relief and cooling sensation, so patches stay put for hours. Dr. Barsoum says that “patches may be more convenient and less messy than creams or gels.”

Active Ingredients: Camphor, menthol, and methyl salicylate | Dose: Do not leave a patch on for more than 8 hours; do not apply more than 3 or 4 times a day | Uses: Temporary relief of minor aches and pains

Best Homeopathic: Naturopathica Arnica Gel

Pros
  • Fast-acting

  • Smooth, non-greasy consistency

  • Long-lasting relief

Cons
  • Pricey

  • Not everyone finds relief using arnica

When other formulas don’t cut it, this luxe Naturopathica gel is worth every penny. The key ingredient is arnica, a prized herb known as "nature’s aspirin." Naturopathica’s product also contains menthol for a cooling effect and natural aroma and enriched with magnesium to improve muscle function.

A little goes a long way with this potent arnica-packed gel that’s gentle on skin and dries with a smooth, non-greasy finish.

Active Ingredients: Arnica and menthol | Dose: Massage a dime size amount into affected areas as needed | Uses: Helps to soothe and restore skin after exercise, post injury, arthritis pain, and otherwise achy muscles and joints

Best Gel: Voltaren Topical Arthritis Relief Gel

Pros
  • In addition to helping with pain, it also improves mobility and reduces stiffness

  • Formerly only available by prescription, but now is over-the-counter

  • Non-greasy formula

Cons
  • Can take several days of use to see results

Voltaren’s fast-acting gel works triple duty. It relieves arthritis aches, improves mobility, and reduces stiffness for overall arthritis joint pain support.

This formula contains an NSAID, diclofenac gel, which is able to work below the surface of the skin and hit right where it hurts. As an NSAID, diclofenac works by inhibiting the COX enzyme, and it may target additional enzymes, according to some research. That means this ingredient works to alleviate pain from the inside out, and it does so quite effectively.

Voltaren’s Topical Arthritis Pain Relief Gel is non-greasy so it won’t make your feet or any area slippery or sticky. It was previously available by prescription only, but now is over-the-counter, so be sure to follow all directions and consult a physician if using other medications with an NSAID.

Active Ingredients: Diclofenac sodium | Dose: Apply on up to two joints out of hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles and knees for topical arthritis pain relief | Uses: Relieves arthritis pain, improves mobility and reduces stiffness

What the Experts Say

“Voltaren Gel is applied to the inflamed area, for example the knee, and is absorbed through the skin. The medicine works similar to other anti-inflammatories, as it contains an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) but only locally at the site of application, and thus avoids many of the side effects of oral (i.e., pill) arthritis medications. Other topical arthritis creams or gels include agents that numb the skin and provide local pain relief, but do not necessarily reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis.”  Rachel Frank, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth and director of the Joint Preservation Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine

Best with Capsaicin: Zostrix Maximum Strength

 Zostrix Maximum Strength Natural Pain Relief Cream
Courtesy of Amazon.
Pros
  • Non-greasy

  • Provides warm, penetrating relief

Cons
  • Cream can sting/burn if used on other parts of the body (or places that are touched prior to washing hands)

First things first: Yes, this product is going to sting a little—that’s the point. Capsaicin is the chemical compound found in chili peppers, so creating that numbing heat is what Zostrix is designed to do. If you’re looking for a cooling product, this is definitely not for you. Having said all that, people who do get more relief from heat should still keep in mind that if used incorrectly, this product can (and will) sting other parts of your body if you touch them without thoroughly washing your hands first. But ultimately, when used as directed, many people have used Zostrix to successfully manage arthritis pain.

Active Ingredients: Capsaicin | Dose: Apply a thin film of cream to the affected area and gently rub in until fully absorbed. For optimum relief apply 3 to 4 times daily. Best results typically occur after 2 to 4 weeks of continuous use. | Uses: Temporary relief of minor aches and pains

What the Experts Say

“Most agents have cooling agents like menthol or capsaicin. They cause the skin to feel cool and then warm and they distract the nerve endings from the pain sensation thus relieving pain. Usually the effect is short lived, it goes away if not used frequently.” —Alejandra Rodriguez-Paez, M.D., a rheumatologist with the Illinois Joint & Bone Institute

Best Odor-Free: Aspercreme Odor-Free Max Strength with Lidocaine

 Aspercreme Odor Free Max Strength Lidocaine Pain Relief Liquid With Roll-On No Mess Applicator

Courtesy of Amazon

Pros
  • Unscented

  • Has a rollerball for easy application

  • Fast-acting

Cons
  • Childproof cap may be difficult to remove for people with arthritis in their hands

  • Applicator has a tendency to leak

For those who have found that other products with lidocaine work for them, but are either too heavily scented or difficult to apply, this option from Aspercreme is both fragrance-free and designed with a rollerball to make getting the product to where you need it easier. Also, it contains 4 percent lidocaine, which is the maximum amount permitted without a prescription. It works by numbing away joint pain.

Active Ingredients: Lidocaine | Dose: Apply a thin layer to the affected area every 6 to 8 hours, not to exceed 3 applications in a 24 hour period | Uses: To numb away minor joint and muscle pain

Best for After Exercising: Sportscreme Deep Penetrating Pain Relieving Rub

Sportscreme Deep Penetrating Pain Relieving Rub

Courtesy of Amazon

Pros
  • Works quickly

  • Non-greasy

Cons
  • Fragranced

  • Extra-thick consistency, so it takes longer to rub in

Although you can certainly use Sportscreme in situations where exercise or movement wasn’t involved, it is a good option for those with arthritis who may have overdone it on a particular day with walking, housework, gardening, or other activities. Or, if you’re doing something that you anticipate will leave you sore, you can also use the product ahead of time. Sportscreme’s “clean fresh scent” is polarizing: some find it pleasant, while others would prefer a product with no scent at all.

Active Ingredients: Trolamine salicylate | Dose: Apply generously to the affected area.  Massage into painful areas until thoroughly absorbed into skin. Repeat as necessary, but not more than 4 times daily. | Uses: Temporary relief of minor aches and pains

Final Verdict

When considering which topical medications might be best for you, it is important to consider the active ingredients in the product. Topicals can contain a variety of different active ingredients that vary from product to product. If you find that one product isn’t working for you, then it might be best to try one with a different active ingredient. 

For a natural pain-reliever, the Naturopathic Arnica Gel (view at Amazon) is hard to beat. It’s the preferred product arthritis sufferers return to again and again for muscle aches, swelling, and joints. And for convenience, you can’t go wrong with the Biofreeze Professional Relief Aerosol Colorless (view at Amazon) for long-lasting relief and mess-free application. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Dr. Rosian says, “I think you need to try and see what works best for you.”

What to Look for in an Arthritis Cream

Active Ingredients

There are several effective ingredients that relieve pain, inflammation, and stiffness in joints caused by arthritis. Topical anesthetics, like lidocaine, create a surface-level numbing effect wherever they're applied. Natural ingredients like menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil, and cinnamon oil create hot and cold sensations on contact and have anti-inflammatory properties to soothe sore joints. The added sensation they create helps dull pain.

“Most agents have cooling agents like menthol or capsaicin,” says Alejandra Rodriguez-Paez, M.D., a rheumatologist with the Illinois Joint & Bone Institute.. This agent depletes the nerve cells in the area of a chemical that’s important for sending pain signals to the brain. “They cause the skin to feel cool and then warm and they distract the nerve endings from the pain sensation thus relieving pain,” Dr. Paez adds. “Usually the effect is short lived, it goes away if not used frequently.” 

Side Effects

Oral medications to relieve arthritis symptoms can sometimes cause gastrointestinal problems, stomach ulcers, and kidney dysfunction. Topical medications, on the other hand, minimize some of those side effects seen in their oral counterparts. “I believe the side effect profile in general is safe, and patients may have a benefit, which would lead them to avoid using other oral agents that have potential for more side effects,” Dr. Paez says. 

But that doesn’t mean these topical agents are for everyone. Because the product is applied directly to the skin, it could cause irritation for people with skin conditions or similar sensitivities. “Patients with different skin conditions, history of eczema or sensitive skin may want to use a small amount first to see if it causes problems,” says Dr. Paez. If you experience a severe skin reaction to the product, it is best to stop use and speak to your doctor about the ingredients that potentially caused the reaction. 

Application

While rollers and patches may seem convenient, doctors say you may be missing out on one major benefit of using an arthritis cream: the massage. “The act of actually putting on some of these rubs may be, at least in part, why they’re helpful,” says Dr. Rosian. “Massaging the cream or gel in and moving around the joints helps with blood flow and modulating the pain around the area.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does arthritis cream work?

    Arthritis creams—also known as topicals or ointments—work on the area they are applied to either reduce pain, reduce inflammation, or both, according to Rachel Frank, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth and director of the Joint Preservation Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

    “[Some] arthritis creams are formulated with salicylates, which can reduce inflammation to the joints when applied topically and lessen pain,” Niket Sonpal, M.D., an internist practicing in New York City tells Verywell Health. “Some creams use ingredients known as ‘counterirritants,’ which actually cause mild irritation or inflammation of the skin to distract the patient from their arthritis’ pain. Menthol, or mint oil, is a common counterirritant often used in arthritis creams.”

  • How often should I apply an arthritis cream?

    Always read the product's label to guarantee you're using the appropriate dose.

    "Many of the products are best used when applied multiple times per day, and so to get the most benefit, patients must be willing to follow the instructions and use appropriately," says Rachel Frank, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth and director of the Joint Preservation Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "As always, talk to your doctor first before starting.”

  • Can you use arthritis cream while pregnant or breastfeeding?

    Any medication, including arthritis creams or gels, should be discussed with your primary care provider before using—especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding,” according to Frank. “While topical agents may be of lower risk than oral agents, there is still a risk of systemic absorption, and may be contraindicated while pregnant or breastfeeding—particularly anything containing an NSAID,” she explains.

    According to Sonpal, topical arthritis creams are usually safe for use while pregnant or breastfeeding. “This is because when treatment, like a cream, is applied topically, the skin absorbs very little of the medication,” he explains. “It is unlikely that a harmful amount of medication from the cream will move through your bloodstream into your uterus or your breastmilk, if you are breastfeeding. If you are unsure of whether or not it is safe to use your specific arthritis cream while pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor for a medical opinion.”

What the Experts Say

“It is advised to look at the ingredients list of a cream to see if it is formulated with topical anesthetics which can help numb the affected area and lessen pain. If you are someone with extremely sensitive skin, it may be beneficial to look for an arthritis cream that caters to sensitive skin and is less irritative. The side effects list can show you what symptoms you may be subjected to after using the cream. If you already suffer from any of those conditions, it is advised to consult your doctor prior to use.” Niket Sonpal, M.D., an internist practicing in New York City

Why Trust Verywell Health?

As a seasoned health writer, Jennifer Nied understands how vital quality product recommendations are for treating symptoms safely and effectively at home. For over 10 years, she has reviewed products, interviewed experts, scrutinized ingredients, and pored over research studies and claims, to help readers like you understand what works for your specific conditions. Every product in this piece was selected taking into account recommendations from doctors, published research, and real customer reviews.

Additional reporting to this story by Danielle Zoellner and Elizabeth Yuko

As a seasoned health writer, Danielle Zoellner knows the importance of finding just the right product to fit your medical needs. Throughout her career, Danielle has interviewed a variety of experts in the medical and health fields while reviewing dozens of products. Her experience and knowledge in the field work together to help readers like yourself find the best products for your daily life.

As a seasoned health writer and editor—and someone with rheumatoid arthritis—Elizabeth Yuko understands how much of a difference finding the right product makes for those with arthritis. She’s always on the lookout for new (and research-backed) products, techniques, and services that can help people cope with their health challenges.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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