In addition to being a popular ingredient in spicy dishes worldwide, the chili pepper also has a surprising role in the medical world.

Capsaicin is the compound found in peppers that gives them their infamous hot and spicy kick. This compound is well-known for its pain-relieving properties. It works by affecting the neurotransmitter that communicates pain signals to the brain. In this way, it can reduce the perception of pain.

Once the capsaicin is extracted from the pepper, it can be added to creams, gels, and even patches for use as a pain-relief treatment.

Capsaicin cream has been studied as a possible treatment option to reduce pain in a handful of conditions.

Arthritis

In arthritis, dysfunction of the pain receptors causes the body to experience prolonged symptoms of pain.

Capsaicin cream is effective for reducing pain caused by various types of arthritis, including:

Diabetic neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage caused by diabetes. This condition affects about 50 percent of people with diabetes. The most common symptoms include the following, especially in feet and hands:

  • tingling or numbness
  • pain
  • weakness

Topical analgesics, such as capsaicin cream, are common treatment options for this condition.

Migraine

Capsaicin cream is also used as a possible treatment option for migraine, a condition characterized by extremely painful headaches and neurological symptoms. The Migraine Research Foundation cites migraine as the third most common illness worldwide.

Muscle pain

The use of capsaicin cream for muscle pain resulting from strains and sprains has been widely researched. Capsaicin injections for hyperalgesia, or an increased sensitivity to pain, has also shown to be an effective way to reduce deep muscle pain.

Other clinical uses

Research suggests that capsaicin may also play a role as complementary medicine in the treatment of obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, and more. However, more research is needed to fully explore the benefits of capsaicin for these conditions.

Although capsaicin is generally regarded as safe, there are some potential side effects of topical use. These side effects generally occur at the application site and most commonly include:

  • burning
  • itching
  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain

These side effects are most often only short-term and should clear up with continued use. It’s important to note that they may worsen with the use of warm or hot water, or from exposure to hot weather.

Also, due to the nature of capsaicin, additional side effects may occur with improper use — especially if you inhale the cream. Inhaling capsaicin cream can cause respiratory distress, such as sneezing and trouble breathing.

As with any medication, rare but serious side effects may occur. If side effects don’t go away or if they become more serious, consult your healthcare professional.

Capsaicin cream is most often effective as an additional treatment for conditions that include pain. When used correctly and consistently, studies have shown that it may help to reduce the chronic pain caused by conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and even migraines.

In one review, the researchers looked at the literature on capsaicin gel for hand and knee osteoarthritis. They found that in five trials, daily administration of capsaicin gel was significantly more effective for pain reduction than placebo. In the study that spanned over a period of 12-weeks, there was over a 50 percent reduction in pain with capsaicin gel use.

In a clinical study from 2014, researchers investigated the use of Qutenza, a topical 8 percent capsaicin patch, for peripheral neuropathic pain. The study participants were given a one-time treatment of up to 4 patches and monitored for a period of 12-weeks.

Results of the study indicated that even a single treatment was able to significantly reduce pain and improve quality of life.

Another 12-week study examined the use of clonidine gel and capsaicin cream for people with diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN). Study participants were asked to administer either cream topically three times a day for a period of 12 weeks.

The results indicated that both the clonidine gel and capsaicin cream were effective for significantly reducing DPN-associated pain. However, it should also be noted that over 58 percent of people in the capsaicin cream group experienced side effects. These included itchiness, red skin, and blisters.

There are many different types of capsaicin cream formulations that are available over the counter (OTC). The most common OTC preparations include:

Many pharmacies also carry their own brand versions of capsaicin creams.

OTC capsaicin creams vary in the percentage of capsaicin that’s used. Most preparations contain anywhere from 0.025 percent to 0.1 percent. The strongest formulation available OTC is 0.1 percent, which can be found in products labeled “high potency.”

The prescription formulation of capsaicin is Qutenza, an 8 percent capsaicin patch. The patch is administered directly at the doctor’s office and can be effective for up to 12 weeks.

Capsaicin cream is most commonly applied to the painful or affected area three to four times per day, depending on the condition:

  • For rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, apply the cream to the most painful joints three times per day.
  • For diabetic neuropathy, depending on the location of the neuropathy, apply the cream below the ankles or above the wrists, three to four times per day.
  • For migraine or headache, apply the cream to the scalp area, being sure to avoid your eyes, three times per day.

OTC forms will include specific directions on the back of the package. Read these thoroughly before applying. When using the cream, be sure to rub the medicine into your skin until it’s fully absorbed.

Capsaicin cream should never be applied to open wounds or cuts. Once you apply the medication, it’s important to wash your hands as it can burn sensitive areas such as the eyes or mouth.

Always consult with a doctor or healthcare professional before starting a new medication. The doctor can also provide further directions on how to best apply capsaicin cream for your condition.

Research suggests that capsaicin cream can be an effective topical treatment option for people with certain painful conditions. There are several OTC options for capsaicin cream, many of which can be found at your local pharmacy or drugstore.

Speak with your healthcare professional about how you can incorporate capsaicin cream into your treatment.

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