Topical Creams for Arthritis Pain Relief

Topical creams provide an alternative to oral medications for patients trying to get relief from arthritis pain. It's important to understand how topical creams work to ensure safe use.

Topical creams are primarily used to soothe aching joints. If you have more severe pain, you may need oral medication as well.

Woman Applying Lotion to Hands

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What You Need to Know About Topical Creams

Topical pain medication comes in creams, gels, and lotion. The topical medication, in any of these formulas, is applied to the skin over the affected, arthritic joint. Some of the topical pain medications are sold over-the-counter. There are different types of over-the-counter topical pain medications:

  • Counterirritants contain menthol, eucalyptus, or oil of wintergreen and work by irritating the skin where it is applied. The skin begins to feel hot or cold, a distraction from the pain. Counterirritants offer temporary pain relief.
  • Salicylates are the main ingredient in topical analgesics. Creams that contain salicylates offer pain relief and reduced joint inflammation. Patients who are allergic to aspirin or patients who take blood thinners should not use salicylate-based creams before discussing potential side effects with their doctor.
  • Capsaicin creams cause a burning sensation. Capsaicin is derived from chili pepper seeds. Capsaicin works best on joints that are close to the skin (i.e., fingers). Capsaicin depletes substance P from nerve cells. Substance P is a neurotransmitter involved in pain regulation.

Topical medications that are only available by prescription contain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The topical NSAIDs, such as those containing diclofenac, are available in the United States, as well as other countries.

Points to Remember

  • Topical creams are not to be used instead of your other arthritis medications. Think of topical creams as an adjunct therapy to be used "with", not "instead of" other treatments.
  • Topical creams are for temporary pain relief.
  • Do not apply topical creams to skin breaks or where the skin is already irritated.
  • Don't forget, you must not touch or rub your eyes while you have topical cream on your hands.
  • Follow the directions on the package of a topical cream. It's also best to talk to your doctor to be sure what you are doing is not harmful to your specific condition.
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