Non-Prescription Topical Pain Relievers Worth Trying

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Pain relief can be available without a prescription. And for centuries, ointments, rubs and liniments have been applied to the skin over painful areas. The topical pain relievers have withstood the tests of time, yet sometimes people overlook their existence. Over time, three basic ingredients have prevailed: the menthol products, the herbal products and the capsaicin products. All are worth trying.

The menthol products give your skin a cold sensation by stimulating the cold sensors in the skin. Over the years, I have heard the best results with a product that delivers cold therapy called Biofreeze. Although the company who produces Biofreeze has a rather simplistic explanation about how it works, all you need to know is that it does work for many people. If you have not tried it, you might be pleasantly surprised when you do.

Topical herbal products utilize a variety of substances used in Eastern medicines. One product that is frequently mentioned by name is Tiger Balm. Some people swear that this stuff is "the bomb" because it helps to relieve their pain. Supposedly, the recipe has been passed down from an ancient Chinese herbalist to a new generation seeking relief. It may work for you, it may not - but it is certainly worth trying.

Last but not least are the products that contain capsaicin, a hot pepper extract. Capsaicin is probably the most widely studied topical pain reliever known to mankind. And many types of products contain Capsaisin, including Icy Hot Arthritis Therapy, Capsin, and Rid-a-Pain (don't you love that name). The theory behind the irritating hot pepper extract is that when applied, the painful burning sensation actually depletes the pain signal (Substance P) to the point that there is a refractory period of time in which no pain can be felt.1 This theory is like yelling for a long period of time only to lose your voice. In essence, this topical treatment helps to desensitize the pain alarm. But first, you have to get past the initial burn and yelling. This topical is not for everyone, but it really can help conditions like painful diabetic neuropathy2 and herpatic neuralgia. Capsaicin is still studied and utilized to this day, probably because it works for some.

All of these topical pain relievers are available without a prescription and are probably worth trying in certain situations. None of these should be used on open wounds. And all, especially capsaicin, should be applied with care. Not everyone will respond to menthol, herbs, or capsaisin, but you'll never know unless you try.

Lancet. 1995 Jan 21;345(8943):160-1

Drugs. 2011 Mar 26;71(5):557-89

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.