Person using topical pain relief productShare on Pinterest
Getty Images

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

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 the 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 White Ointment

At any given moment, I have two to five 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: It’s strong. It has notes of clove, peppermint, and camphor. It may be too intense for some people.

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 five than to buy 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. It’s refreshing, light, and not cloying like some menthols.

Cons: It’s only available online and is kind of pricey.

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

Mary’s Medicinals CBD Muscle Freeze

This product is infused with cannabidiol (CBD) and 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: It’s strong and minty.

Cons: It’s expensive, and the 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: The scent is minimal and slightly smells like menthol.

Cons: It can fall off easily if it’s not strategically applied.

Pro tip: The patches don’t stick great on joints, can inhibit movement, and can easily fall off. Stick to back and muscle pain!

Mary’s Medicinals 1:1 CBD:THC Patch

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

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

Scent: None.

Cons: It’s only available where cannabis is legal.

Pro tip: Use coconut oil to remove it, as it sticks like glue!

Available in select stores only where cannabis is legal.

Voltaren Gel

This is a topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), similar to ibuprofen. It reduces inflammation and works best on small joints. Voltaren gel is available over the counter. However, Voltaren capsules and eye drops are prescriptive drugs and not OTC.

Scent: The scent is mild and smells slightly medicinal and sickly sweet. The scent doesn’t linger.

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

Pro tip: This works best on joints with little padding, like wrists.

Lidoderm Lidocaine Patches (Rx only)

Ah, how I love my Lidoderm patches! Unfortunately, certain doses of lidocaine require a prescription and are only covered for a few specific diagnoses (Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) is not one of them).

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

Scent: None.

Cons: A prescription is needed for higher doses and is only covered by insurance for a few specific diagnoses.

Pro tip: It works best on large areas, like the back or hips. It doesn’t stick well to joints, like knees or 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.

What is topical pain relief?

Topical pain relief, or analgesics, are medicated products applied to the skin to help with pain relief. They can come in the form of:

  • creams
  • lotions
  • gels
  • sprays
  • patches
  • other topical methods

Are topical analgesics effective?

According to research, topical analgesics may be highly effective in relieving pain by up to 50 percent.

How long does it take topical pain relief to work?

Topical pain relievers work by absorbing into the skin and acting on the tissues within the skin. Different medications absorb and work differently on the skin, but many topical pain relievers can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to be effective.

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.