Rub-on Pain Relievers Offer Kinder, Gentler Relief from Arthritis Pain, from the January 2013 Harvard Men's Health Watch

Pain-relieving creams, gels, and patches applied to the skin work best for mild to moderate pain from muscles, joints, and other pain sources close to the skin's surface.

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Topical pain relievers can be very helpful for the more superficial joints like the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and hands.

Boston, MA (PRWEB) January 07, 2013

When joint pain cries out for relief but ibuprofen and other over-the-counter medicines upset the stomach, it may be worth trying a gentler alternative: anti-inflammatory pain relievers applied to the skin, not taken as a pill, reports the January 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch.

Pain relievers applied to the skin are called topical analgesics. Prescription versions, which usually deliver nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), come as creams, sprays, gels, or patches. The active ingredient soaks in through the skin to reach the pain. In contrast, oral pain relievers flood the whole body with the medication after being absorbed in the gut. The most widely available prescription topical NSAID in U.S. pharmacies is diclofenac gel.

"Topical pain relievers can be very helpful for the more superficial joints like the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and hands," says Dr. Rosalyn Nguyen, a clinical instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "In those areas, the medication can penetrate closer to the joint."

The source of pain usually determines if a topical pain reliever is appropriate. For a localized problem with just one joint causing the pain, there's no need for medication to travel throughout the body. A topical analgesic isn't that helpful when pain emanates across an extended area, like the lower back.

Keep in mind that even with a topical analgesic, a small amount of the NSAID gets into the bloodstream. That may be enough to cause trouble for among people who have had ulcers or experienced gastrointestinal bleeding with an oral NSAID.

Not ready to commit to a prescription topical drug? It might be worth trying an over-the-counter product such as Icy Hot or Bengay, which temporarily mask pain with a sensation of coolness or heat. Other topical analgesics contain aspirin-like salicylates that have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. A third type contains capsaicin, the stuff that makes hot peppers so fiery. This substance overwhelms pain-sensing nerve circuits and masks the sensations from the underlying injury.

Read the full-length article: "Get rub-on relief for arthritis joint pain"

Also in the January 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch:

  •     What to expect from a prostate biopsy
  •     Harness the mind-body connection for healthier eating
  •     Fish, not fish oil, prevents stroke
  •     An update on the next generation of Alzheimer's drugs

The Harvard Men's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/mens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).


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  • Natalie Ramm
    Harvard Health Publications
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