Whether your ache was caused by an intense workout or just working around the house, a topical pain reliever may help.
Muscle pulls. Ankle sprains. Achy knees. If you’re looking for relief from minor pains like these, a medication that’s absorbed through the skin might be for you. Available in cream, gel, spray and patch form, these medications are called topical pain relievers and they’re available over the counter, no prescription required.
What makes an over-the-counter topical pain reliever work?
OTC topical pain relievers rely on one or more of these common active ingredients:
Capsaicin. This compound is found in hot chili peppers and it causes a warming or tingling sensation.
Counterirritants. This group of ingredients includes camphor, menthol and methyl salicylate (wintergreen oil). When a counterirritant comes in contact with skin, it creates a burning or cooling sensation that distracts you from pain.
Salicylates. This is used as an analgesic and it’s the same pain-relieving ingredient found in aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. If you’re allergic to aspirin or taking blood thinners, don’t use any product with this ingredient until you check with your doctor first.
You should always read labels so you know what active ingredient the product you’re choosing contains. If you’re pregnant, you should skip topical pain relievers altogether. And it’s important to remember that you should never use any of these products with heat, a heating pad or hot water.
Cream, gel, spray or patch?
Gels and creams are easy to apply to large or small areas, and they’re especially good for joints that bend (elbow or knee). Sprays are good for larger areas although they can be a bit messy and hard to apply. Patches are best used on flat areas like the back or arm. In the end however, it comes down to your personal preference and what works best for you.
Don’t forget about traditional hot and cold packs.
Finally, if you want a 100% non-medicated solution, consider a reusable hot/cold pack or water bottle. Use cold to numb sore areas and slow circulation to help control swelling. Use hot to relax sore muscles, increase blood flow and improve range of motion. Regardless of whether you chose hot or cold, you should only apply for 15-20 minutes at a time. And never apply a hot/cold pack directly to your skin; place a towel in-between it and your skin.
If your pain gets worse or none of these at-home treatments work, call your doctor. They may suggest an alternate therapy or stronger prescription medication.