How Do Arthritis Creams Work?

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Experiencing pain is never a good thing, but when that pain emanates from your joints — key body parts in every movement you make — the aching and throbbing can be almost unbearable at times. Swelling and stiffness can make it difficult to walk, climb stairs and take part in normal daily activities. As the condition progresses, the joints could even bulge and twist and look deformed.

Unfortunately, arthritis is degenerative and can’t be reversed or repaired, but various treatment options are available to help you manage the pain and symptoms associated with the condition. Joint replacement may be necessary for patients with severe arthritis, but some people manage their symptoms by taking over-the-counter pain relievers and applying hot or cold compresses to the affected joints. The best treatment plan for your arthritis depends on several factors, including the type of arthritis you have, but analgesic arthritis creams provide a certain amount of pain relief to many patients. Here’s what you need to know about using topical analgesics to help manage your pain and symptoms when you’re living with arthritis.

Overview of Arthritis

Many people think of arthritis as a single, specific type of disease that attacks the joints, particularly in elderly people. In reality, “arthritis” is a blanket term for a broad range of joint diseases, and more than 100 types of arthritis have been diagnosed. Combined, all the different types represent the primary cause of disability in the U.S. It does occur with greater frequency as people age and among women, but people of all ages, genders and races could develop some type of arthritis. Joint stiffness, swelling and pain are typically the first noticeable signs.

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Osteoarthritis is the most common type of degenerative arthritis, which leads to pain when bone starts to rub on bone. Symptom relief often includes hot and cold compresses and pain relievers. For inflammatory arthritis, which is triggered by an overactive immune system, doctors usually prescribe specific medications known as disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS) to combat the inflammation.

Infectious arthritis occurs when a virus or other contaminant infects the joint and causes inflammation. Sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning are common causes. These infections require antibiotic treatment to eliminate the infection and the corresponding inflammation, but the arthritis itself could become chronic. In metabolic arthritis, higher than normal levels of uric acid in the body cause extremely painful crystals to form in the joints, a condition known as gout. Medications designed to reduce inflammation can help with episodes of gout.

Arthritis Creams and Rubs

When you’re experiencing an ache that needs to be soothed, the idea of rubbing away the pain is appealing, even before you introduce the idea of rubbing in an analgesic cream. These types of medications are common treatment options that are easy to find — no prescription required — and easy to apply yourself unless the arthritis is in your back. Topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be safely applied to the skin at the joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation. These medications include creams, gels, liquids and patches in various strengths. Both doctor prescribed and over-the-counter medications are available.

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Depending on the strength of the medication and your doctor’s recommendation, you can usually apply these medications up to four times a day. Over-the-counter gels and creams usually have dosage and usage instructions on the box or on a paper insert inside the box. If the medication is in liquid form, the instructions will tell you the number of drops to apply to the skin. If it’s in patch form, you should apply the patch to your most painful joint.

Arthritis Creams and Capsaicin

If you love spicy chili peppers on your food, then you’re already familiar with a little ingredient called capsaicin, the component that gives chili peppers their heat. In some cases, people with arthritis experience relief from pain when they use a topical cream, gel or patch that contains capsaicin, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Capsaicin works in cream form by creating a localized stinging or warming sensation, which activates nerve receptors in the affected area. With consistent, regular use of capsaicin over a period of time, these nerve receptors may stop delivering pain signals, which interrupts the brain’s ability to recognize the sensations as pain.

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You can apply an arthritis cream containing capsaicin up to three times a day. Be sure to avoid contact with your eyes, nose and any sensitive or broken skin.

Benefits of Arthritis Creams

Using an arthritis cream can be preferable to taking oral medication for many reasons. If your arthritis symptoms are mild and affect only a few joints, the rubbing and the analgesic in the cream might provide plenty of pain relief without taking medications that could lead to heart problems, digestive issues, liver issues or even dependence if the medication in question is a prescription pain reliever or muscle relaxer.

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Other Topical Medications for Arthritis Pain

Some arthritis creams contain soothing ingredients designed to work as homeopathic remedies to relieve swelling and pain. Examples include ointments, rubs and creams with eucalyptus oil, menthol and eugenol from cloves. When you rub these compounds into your joints, it creates a sensation of heat or cold that feels soothing. Many of these types of ingredients also provide some aromatherapy benefits. Eucalyptus improves circulation to the brain and relieves mental exhaustion, for example.

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Other popular arthritis creams contain salicylates, which are chemicals that come from salicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. Applying these topical ointments can deliver the same type of pain relief benefits you would expect to experience without requiring you to take aspirin orally, which can be harsh on the stomach.