Arthritis pain: Treatments absorbed through your skin

Learn about the various types of topical pain medications available for pain relief. Can they 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 though you take your usual arthritis pain medication. Reluctant to pop another pill, you might wonder whether using a joint cream could dull the pain.

How do these products work? Can they relieve 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 come in 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?

Active ingredients in over-the-counter topical pain medications can 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. Capsaicin is most effective if used several times a day. It might take up to two weeks to feel relief.
  • 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.
June 09, 2016 See more In-depth