Arthritis pain: Treatments absorbed through your skin

Learn about the various types of creams, gels and patches available for pain relief. Can these topical pain medications ease your arthritis pain? By Mayo Clinic Staff

After an especially active weekend of hiking or work around the yard, your joints might continue to hurt even after you take your usual arthritis pain medication. Reluctant to pop another pill, you may decide to pick up an over-the-counter joint cream or patch that promises to dull the pain.

But how do these products work? Are they any good at relieving arthritis pain?

What are topical pain medications?

Topical pain medications are absorbed through your skin. The most common varieties are creams or gels that you rub onto the skin over your painful joints. Some types come in the form of a spray or a patch that sticks to your skin. Because the ingredients are absorbed through the skin, most topical pain medications are best used on joints that are close to the skin's surface, such as the joints in your hands and knees.

What types of ingredients are used?

The active ingredients in over-the-counter topical pain medications may include:

  • Capsaicin. Capsaicin (kap-SAY-ih-sin) causes the burning sensation you associate with chili peppers. Capsaicin creams deplete your nerve cells of a chemical that's important for sending pain messages. Examples include Capzasin and Zostrix.
  • Salicylates. Salicylates (suh-LIS-uh-lates) contain the pain-relieving substance found in aspirin. Examples include Aspercreme and Bengay.
  • Counterirritants. Substances such as menthol and camphor produce a sensation of hot or cold that may temporarily override your ability to feel your arthritis pain. Examples include Icy Hot and Biofreeze.
Aug. 01, 2013 See more In-depth