Can Capsaicin Cream Ease Your Pain?

Health Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

If you live with pain, you may know all too well how difficult it can be to manage. In some instances, people have used capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to treat different types of pain. When applied to the skin in the form of a cream, ointment, gel, lotion, or skin patch, capsaicin is thought to provide pain relief by temporarily changing the way your body processes pain.

This article explains the claims about capsaicin and the proven benefits, how it might be used, and possible side effects of using products made with capsaicin.

Potential Side Effects of Capsaicin Cream
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Uses of Capsaicin Cream

Capsaicin is the main reason that chili peppers can cause irritation, burning, and a sensation of heat. While lotions or capsaicin products applied to the skin may initially cause these symptoms as well, the sensation can go away as the area becomes used to the capsaicin and is desensitized.

Capsaicin is unique in its ability to treat pain because it may, at first, produce pain before relieving discomfort.

Capsaicin cream has been shown to relieve pain caused by a wide range of conditions, including:

Benefits of Topical Capsaicin

A number of preliminary studies suggest that topical capsaicin may offer a variety of health benefits. Here's a look at findings from the available research.

Chronic Neuropathic Pain

In a 2017 review, researchers reviewed eight previously published clinical trials. These involved 2,488 participants and examined the effectiveness of a high-concentration capsaicin patch in people with chronic neuropathic pain (pain caused by damage to nerves, either from an injury or disease). The studies show that capsaicin helped people with the following conditions:

The review showed that a small number of participants were "much" or "very much" improved after using the capsaicin patch.

Compared to the studies of patches with high levels of capsaicin, previous research did not find evidence that low-concentration capsaicin patches (with less than 1% capsaicin) were effective at treating pain.

A high concentration (8%) capsaicin patch is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the management of postherpetic neuralgia pain. Because the patch causes pain and burning at first, the patch is applied under local anesthetic by a medical professional in a clinic or hospital setting.

Osteoarthritis Pain

In a report published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage in 2014, studies looked at drug and non-drug treatments for osteoarthritis. This research helped determine guidelines for managing knee osteoarthritis pain.

In the report, capsaicin helped people with osteoarthritis of the knee who didn't have other relevant health conditions. The findings did not apply to people with multi-joint osteoarthritis.

Lower Back Pain

For a report published in Spine in 2016, researchers reviewed previous trials on the effectiveness of capsaicin for people with low back pain. They found that capsaicin reduces pain more than a placebo, or fake medicinal treatment.

The authors noted, however, that additional trials were needed to compare the therapies to standard treatment.

Other Conditions

Topical capsaicin is also being studied as a possible treatment for:

Recap

Capsaicin is a popular spice ingredient derived from chili peppers. In addition to its culinary importance, capsaicin has been looked to for medicinal benefits for centuries. Modern research has proven that there are benefits to using it to help with nerve pain, arthritis pain, and back pain.

There continues to be great interest in the benefits of capsaicin, and research is looking at its possible uses for other conditions.

How to Use Capsaicin

To avoid excessive irritation or burning, which can occur with capsaicin cream, you need to take care when applying the products to your skin.

To use capsaicin to manage pain, keep these essential rules in mind:

  • Avoid contact with eyes and mucous membranes.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after applying creams or other topical treatments.
  • Wear thick rubber gloves instead of latex gloves since capsaicin can seep through latex.
  • Do not apply capsaicin to open wounds or broken skin.
  • Keep the creams away from children and pets.
  • If you apply capsaicin cream to your feet, cover them to avoid contaminating the floor and spreading the capsaicin.

If you have a burning feeling, applying cool, dry packs wrapped in cloth should offer some relief. Only use these for brief periods to avoid injuring the skin.

Possible Side Effects

During the early period of capsaicin treatment, skin reactions can occur such as burning, pain, itching, and skin redness. These side effects typically go away after one to two weeks of treatment. With the high-concentration patch, the sensation is sometimes described as feeling like a "bad sunburn."

Other side effects have been reported:

  • The high-concentration patch may cause pain, inflammation, coughing, swelling, redness, and skin blisters, with pain increasing in the first two days. You may need pain medication to manage these symptoms until they slowly decrease.
  • Spikes in blood pressure have been noted, particularly with high concentration capsaicin. The risk is greater in people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease.
  • People with HIV neuropathy have reported diarrhea, weight loss, and throat infections after the use of the high-concentration patch.

The safety of long-term, repeated applications of high concentration capsaicin isn't known. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, speak with your doctor about whether capsaicin is safe and beneficial.

Summary

Capsaicin has been shown to help reduce pain when it’s applied to the skin as a cream, lotion, or patch. The most obvious side effect of this treatment is burning and irritation, which possibly lasts several days when you first start using capsaicin treatments. 

High-concentration patches can cause intense reactions when they’re first applied, so these are usually put on in a hospital or other medical setting. 

Research continues to explore the medicinal benefits of this chili pepper extract. There may be numerous uses for it, but more studies are needed to verify the claims of healing and pain relief.

A Word From Verywell

While not everyone responds to capsaicin cream, it may help some people manage pain in conjunction with standard treatment. The cream does require regular applications and has side effects.

If you're considering trying capsaicin cream or any other form of topical capsaicin, speak to your doctor. They can determine whether it's appropriate and tell you what to expect at the recommended dose.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is capsaicin cream used for?

    Capsaicin cream is a topical analgesic used to relieve muscle, joint, and soft tissue pain. It can be used for chronic pain or acute injuries. 

    Common conditions that capsaicin may help include:

    • Arthritis
    • Back pain
    • Cluster headaches
    • Gout
    • Neuropathy and neuralgia
    • Pulled muscles
    • Sciatica
    • Shingles
    • Sprains 
    • Tendonitis
  • Do you need a prescription to buy capsaicin cream?

    Capsaicin cream is available over the counter in pharmacies, grocery stores, health food stores, and online. Stronger doses of capsaicin are available by prescription.

    A capsaicin patch, Qutenza (capsaicin) 8%, is only available by prescription and must be applied by a healthcare professional.

  • Is capsaicin cream supposed to burn?

    You will likely feel burning when capsaicin cream is applied to your skin. The feeling should be mild, though, and it should become less intense the more you use the cream.

Was this page helpful?
8 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.
  1. Fattori V, Hohmann MS, Rossaneis AC, Pinho-ribeiro FA, Verri WA. Capsaicin: current understanding of its mechanisms and therapy of pain and other pre-clinical and clinical uses. Molecules. 2016;21(7). doi:10.3390/molecules21070844

  2. Derry S, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin (low concentration) for chronic neuropathic pain in adultsCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12;(9):CD010111. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010111

  3. McAlindon TE, Bannuru RR, Sullivan MC, et al. OARSI guidelines for the non-surgical management of knee osteoarthritisOsteoarthritis Cartilage. 2014 Mar;22(3):363-88. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2014.01.003

  4. Gagnier JJ, Oltean H, van Tulder MW, Berman BM, Bombardier C, Robbins CB. Herbal medicine for low back pain: A Cochrane reviewSpine (Phila Pa 1976). 2016 Jan;41(2):116-33. doi:10.1097/01.brs.0000249525.70011.fe

  5. Carey ET, As-Sanie S. New developments in the pharmacotherapy of neuropathic chronic pelvic painFuture Sci OA. 2016;2(4):FSO148. doi:10.4155/fsoa-2016-0048

  6. Derry S, Rice AS, Cole P, Tan T, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin (high concentration) for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;1:CD007393. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007393.pub4

  7. Baranidharan G, Das S, Bhaskar A. A review of the high-concentration capsaicin patch and experience in its use in the management of neuropathic pain. Ther Adv Neurol Disord. 2013;6(5):287-97. doi:10.1177/1756285613496862

  8. University of Michigan Medicine. Capsaicin topical.