I used to dismiss pain creams as too lightweight for my chronic pain. I was wrong.

Welcome back to “Life’s a Pain!” This month’s topic is a touchy one: topicals.

Today, there are a lot more options than the Bengay and IcyHot of my youth. I don’t leave the house without at least one topical treatment in my bag (and on my skin).

Many topicals work by utilizing counterirritants like menthol and camphor, which stimulate sensory receptors in the skin and may block pain sensations.

Basically, you feel the more neutral sensation of cold or hot instead of pain. These ingredients, combined with the physical act of rubbing them in, also help to relax muscles and increase circulation to the affected area.

I used to dismiss pain creams as too lightweight for my chronic pain. I was wrong.

Though they can’t fix pain, they’re a vital part of managing it. There’s no risk of addiction, most of them are affordable, and they travel well.

Allow me to introduce you to some of my favorites:

Tiger Balm

At any given moment, I have 2 to 5 jars of Tiger Balm within my reach. Tiger Balm is simple, effective, and cheap.

It’s my gold standard for topical joint pain relief. The relief lasts for hours. I use this most on my knees, wrists, and back.

Scent: STRONG. Clove, peppermint, camphor. Too intense for some.

Cons: The menthol may make your body feel cold, especially if used on a large area.

Pro-tip: The original orange version will stain. The white ointment will not. It’s cheaper to buy 5 than buying individually.

Ted’s Pain Cream

This pain cream claims to “outsmart pain on a molecular level” using resveratrol.

Daily use is suggested to increase maximum effectiveness. Ted’s is my go-to for intense, burning nerve pain. I also like it for foot pain and bicep pain. Bonus: it smells amazing.

Scent: Wintergreen. Refreshing, light, and not cloying like some menthols.

Cons: Only available online; kind of pricey.

Pro-tip: I buy a 3-pack and save $6.

Mary’s Medicinals CBD Muscle Freeze

This CBD-infused product is a luxurious treat. Its gel-like texture absorbs well and CBD may help reduce inflammation.

I like it for muscle strains, especially in my neck and shoulders.

Scent: Strong. Minty. Similar to VapoRub.

Cons: Expensive. Childproof squeeze bottle hurts my wrists.

Pro-tip: If cannabis is legal in your state, search for Mary’s here. Otherwise, order the version with legal, hemp-derived CBD here.

Salonpas patches

This is cheap and easy pain relief on the fly.

These discreet patches are easily stashed in the smallest of bags, last for hours, and won’t be detected by others unless they’re actually sniffing your skin.

Scent: Minimal. Menthol-y. Not obvious to others.

Cons: Can fall off easily if not strategically applied.

Pro-tip: Doesn’t stick great on joints as it can inhibit movement and easily fall off. Stick to back and muscle pain!

Mary’s Medicinals 1:1 CBD:THC Patch

Another pain relief treat from Mary’s is this scentless patch which sticks to your skin for up to 12 hours, releasing a small, steady stream of CBD and THC.

It helps take the edge off my moderate to severe pain days without clouding my thinking.

Scent: None!

Cons: Only available where cannabis is legal. Find a store here.

Pro-tip: Use coconut oil to remove; it sticks like glue!

Available in select stores only where cannabis is legal.

Voltaren Gel (Rx only)

This is a topical NSAID, similar to ibuprofen. It reduces inflammation and works best on small joints.

Scent: Mild. Smells slightly medicinal and sickly-sweet. Scent doesn’t linger.

Cons: You have to monitor your NSAID use when using this gel. Ask your doctor or friendly local pharmacist for assistance!

Pro-tip: Works best on joints with little padding, like wrists.

Cost varies based on insurance or copay. Ask about a cheaper generic available!

Lidoderm Lidocaine patches (Rx only)

Ah, how I love my Lidoderm patches! Unfortunately, they’re only covered for a few specific diagnoses (EDS is not one of them).

They’re $150 a box for me — which is outrageous — so I hoard them and only use them for extreme pain and acute injuries. Ask your doctor about a prescription, and ask your pharmacist or insurer about the price.

Scent: None.

Cons: Prescription needed and is only covered by insurance for a few specific diagnoses.

Pro-tip: Works best on large areas, like the back or hips. Doesn’t stick well to joints like knees and ankles.

Cost varies based on insurance or copay.

Before you hurry off to give these a whirl, there are a few important tips to keep in mind:

quick Topical tips
  • Don’t apply any of these on broken skin, burns, or rashes.
  • Check ingredients if you have allergies.
  • Always do a patch test when using a product for the first time.
  • Many of these contain menthol, clove, and other potential irritants. Wash your hands after applying and be careful when touching your eyes and other mucous membranes.
  • Use a makeup spatula to scrape out every last drop.

There are so many options out there for pain management. This list represents only a snapshot of what’s available!

As always, talking with your care team can help you determine what strategies are best for you.

I hope you’ll try these topical treatments the next time you have a flare. And remember: tiger balm — it’s not just for tigers anymore.

Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer-day, she’s hiking with her corgi Vincent. She lives in Oakland. Learn more about her at ashfisherhaha.com.