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Swollen joints from arthritis can cause pain and limit your ability to move. If you have arthritis, you probably want as many pain relief options as possible.
You may already have tried over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers you take by mouth and exercise. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.
Another option is to try one of the many OTC topical creams that can help relieve arthritis pain.
Here’s the lowdown on these products to help you decide which arthritis cream might be best for you.
Arthritis creams help relieve joint pain when applied to the skin. They can provide short-term — but effective — relief. These creams tend to work best on joints that are close to the surface of the skin, such as the joints in the hands or knees.
The main pain relieving ingredients in arthritis creams are:
Salicylates reduce inflammation (swelling and irritation), which helps decrease pressure and pain in the joints.
Some brands of salicylate products also contain other ingredients such as:
- eucalyptus oil
- cinnamon oil
These substances are called counterirritants. They warm or cool the skin and distract the brain from pain.
Capsaicin is a natural, odor-free element found in hot chili peppers. It reduces pain by blocking the skin’s pain receptors.
The arthritis creams most commonly found in drugstores include:
Diclofenac (Voltaren) is an NSAID gel that relieves osteoarthritis pain, especially in joints such as the:
It’s been available in prescription strength since 2007. In 2020, the FDA approved an over-the-counter version.
Research finds that Voltaren is good at relieving pain and stiffness caused by arthritis. And because it causes fewer side effects than NSAID pills, it may be preferable for older people or those with heart or kidney problems.
Tiger Balm is a topical pain reliever that’s been around for decades. It contains the ingredients camphor and menthol, which create a cooling sensation and help to relieve muscle and joint pain.
Research finds that Tiger Balm helpful for relieving muscular aches. It’s generally safe, with only mild side effects like skin irritation and allergic reactions reported.
Still, this product isn’t recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women. And people who are on blood thinners should avoid formulations that contain the ingredient methyl salicylate.
Bengay arthritis cream is used to relieve muscle and bone pain. It contains salicylates, camphor, and menthol. Bengay reduces inflammation and has cooling and warming effects.
This product comes in different forms, including as a:
It’s also available in a vanishing-scent option for people who aren’t fond of the menthol smell.
Shop for Bengay non-vanishing gel online here.
Icy Hot contains menthol and salicylates. It provides an initial cooling sensation followed by heat. Icy Hot is also available in a vanishing gel, so the menthol scent disappears quickly.
Shop for Icy Hot non-vanishing cream online.
People who don’t like the smell of arthritis creams may prefer odor-free Aspercreme. It contains salicylates but no counterirritants. It may also be a good choice if your skin is sensitive to counterirritant ingredients.
The active ingredient in Capzasin-HP arthritis cream is capsaicin. Its warming sensation is much milder than the one you feel when you eat peppers. Still, you should stop using this cream if you find that capsaicin irritates your skin.
The active ingredient in Sportscreme is salicylate. This scented cream has a thicker consistency than most other creams, so it takes a little more rubbing to massage it into the skin.
Although arthritis creams are OTC products, you still need to use them properly. Follow these steps to help ensure your arthritis cream is safe and effective.
- Always follow the package directions when applying an arthritis cream.
- Wash your hands before and after you apply the cream. Never touch your eyes or mucus membranes when you have arthritis cream on your hands.
- Limit your use to four times per day, unless the package suggests otherwise.
- Stop using the cream if it causes any irritation or if you notice that your skin is sensitive to the product.
- If you’re sensitive or allergic to aspirin, ask your doctor if you should avoid salicylates. You may also need to avoid them if you take prescription blood thinners.
- To prevent side effects, use salicylate creams only occasionally, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
With so many arthritis pain relief creams on the market, it can be hard to know which is right for you. Keep trying different products until you find one that you like.
If over-the-counter pain relief creams you try aren’t strong enough for you, talk to your doctor about creating an arthritis management plan. This might include mobility exercises, as well as stronger medications.
Your doctor will make sure you have the right diagnosis. Once you know what type of arthritis you’re dealing with, you can find the arthritis pain relief product that’s best for your condition.