How well do they work?

Opinions differ on the effectiveness of over-the-counter topical pain medications. While many people say these products help relieve their arthritis pain, scientific research reveals only modest benefits.

Some products work only slightly or no better than a placebo in relieving arthritis pain. Capsaicin might be more effective when used with other treatments, such as pills containing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Are they safe to use?

Application of capsaicin creams can make your skin burn or sting, but this discomfort generally lessens within a few weeks of daily use. Wash your hands thoroughly after each application and avoid touching your eyes and mucous membranes. You may need to wear latex gloves when applying the cream.

If you are allergic to aspirin or are taking blood thinners, check with your doctor before using topical medications that contain salicylates. Also, using too much can be toxic.

Don't use topical pain relievers on broken or irritated skin or with a heating pad or bandage.

Are there topical pain products available by prescription?

Oral NSAIDs are a common treatment for osteoarthritis, but they can irritate the stomach. Topical NSAIDs, however, have a lower risk of stomach irritation.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has approved several topical products (Voltaren, Solaraze, others) that contain the prescription NSAID diclofenac for the treatment of osteoarthritis in joints close to the skin's surface, such as the hands and knees.

Some studies indicate that many NSAID creams and gels work as well as their oral counterparts. For older people or those who can't tolerate oral NSAIDs, topical NSAIDs might be used instead.

June 09, 2016 See more In-depth