Alternative: Topical Pain Relievers
Along with the increasingly popular corydalis herbal remedy, pain sufferers may also use other methods for relief. Some alternatives include:
- natural (complementary) methods
- over-the-counter oral analgesics
- hot- or cold-pack treatments
- topical pain relievers
The category of topical products consists of items generally available without a doctor’s prescription. Such products include creams, lotions, gels, liquids, sprays and dermal patches to apply to the skin. They are designed to relieve localized discomfort from sore muscles and arthritis. Some examples of topical pain relievers include familiar names such as Aspercreme, Ben-Gay, Icy Hot and Capzasin.
When Is a Topical Treatment Appropriate? When Is It Not?
Why might you consider using a topical pain reliever? Some people cannot take oral medication because of difficulty with swallowing. After surgery, or for other reasons, individuals may have impaired ability to absorb drugs through the GI system. More often, though, topical remedies are appropriate when pain is localized. For example a tennis player might apply a topical agent to his shoulder for relief of discomfort in that specific area. Such products can provide short-term — but effective — relief. These treatments tend to work best on joints that are close to the surface of the skin (e.g., joints in the hands or knees).
Consumer Reports recently evaluated topical treatments under a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program. The researchers looked at a variety of topical treatments and developed recommendations for their use.
There are three major categories of topical therapies for pain relief:
Capsaicin is a natural, odor-free component found in hot chili peppers. It reduces pain by blocking the skin’s pain receptors. Aspirin creams work by obstructing substances in the body that cause pain in the affected area. Over-the-counter (OTC) NSAID topical products, on the other hand, work by reducing inflammation, swelling and irritation in a localized area of the body. This effect helps to decrease pressure and pain, for example, in the joints. Some specialized topical medications may even contain narcotic pain relievers. The narcotic-containing items, though, are generally dispensed by prescription only.
These medications can numb painful areas for short periods of time. Uses vary from relieving the sting of a sunburn to managing the chronic pain of a shingles infection. Such products may also be used by a dentist to ease the pain of giving a gingival injection.
These are products that contain substances such as menthol, eucalyptus, cinnamon or oil of wintergreen that irritate nerve endings. They produce a cool or a warm feeling on the skin which distracts the brain from registering deeper sources of pain.
- People sensitive to the active ingredient in an oral pain reliever should not try it in topical form.
- Individuals who are allergic to adhesives should avoid patch-type products.
- Do not use a topical pain reliever on any infected skin site.
- Do not apply too much; overdose is possible, just as with oral medications.
- Follow the specific directions on the product package.
Although most topical treatments are OTC products, you still need to use them properly. Follow these steps for safe, effective use:
- Do not use topical products along with a heating pad because it could cause burns.
- Wash your hands before and after applying.
- Never touch your eyes or mucus membranes when you have topical products on your hands.
- Limit your use to no more than four times per day, unless the package or your healthcare provider suggests otherwise.
- Never apply to wounds or damaged skin.
- Do not use any topical products under a tight bandage.
- Stop using the product if it causes any irritation or if you notice that your skin is sensitive to the product.
- If you are sensitive or allergic to aspirin, ask your doctor if you should avoid topical salicylates. You may also need to avoid them if you take prescription blood thinners.
- Always read and follow package directions.