A woman putting topical cream on her hands.
Topical creams can help offer pain relief for arthritis.

Topical Creams for Arthritis Pain Relief

Rheumatoid arthritis affects roughly 350 million people worldwide. It seems like everybody knows somebody who has been affected by this crippling, painful condition.

Symptoms of arthritis include pain, swelling, and stiffness that generally starts in smaller joints such as the hands, or wrists, but may spread to larger joints like the shoulder, hips, or knees.

Some lesser-known symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include fever, fatigue, weakness, and the development of unusual but often painless lumps called rheumatoid nodules.

Arthritis never goes away entirely. There is currently no cure for it that will work for everyone. Most patients rely on pain management strategies to keep their symptoms under control and keep living their lives. One of the least invasive strategies is using topical creams for arthritis pain relief.

What Topical Creams Exist for Arthritis?

Topical creams for arthritis are not miracle treatments. Many patients use them in combination with other pain management strategies or in conjunction with arthritis-specific medications, such as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

One benefit of trying topical creams is that in almost all cases there are little to no side effects. They may occasionally cause skin irritation, especially if you are allergic to an ingredient and do not realize it. If you have not tried one, there’s little harm in it, though you should mention it to your doctor and follow all directions on the packaging.

The topical creams that exist for arthritis are usually available over the counter and come in several different categories that use different active ingredients. The most common types are anti-inflammatories, counterirritants, and capsaicin creams.

Anti-inflammatories

Anti-inflammatory creams aim to reduce arthritis pain by targeting the source of that pain: inflammation in the joints. The most common anti-inflammatory ingredient in over-the-counter arthritis creams is salicylate.

These types of creams are generally safe, though you should aim to only use them occasionally, and you should obviously discontinue use if any irritation or other side effects emerge.

There are several brands of salicylate creams that come with different secondary ingredients, so there may be some trial and error in finding a cream you really like. Talk to your doctor before starting any new medications, since salicylate may interact with prescription blood thinners.

There are also stronger creams that contain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories that are only available by prescription from a doctor. These are not usually used with other NSAID treatments, so discuss any medications you take currently with your doctor.

Counterirritants

Counterirritants are one of the most benign and noninvasive arthritis treatments. They use a compound to produce a sensation in the skin that distracts the nervous system from the pain. It does nothing to influence the underlying cause of inflammation.

Counterirritant ingredients include menthol (a cooling agent from mint) and cinnamon oil, and they are often paired with anti-inflammatory ingredients like salicylate.

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Capsaicin Creams

Capsaicin is the compound in hot peppers that gives them their spicy flavor. When used as a topical cream, capsaicin blocks the pain receptors in the skin, temporarily numbing pain. Capsaicin may also be included in salicylate creams over-the-counter.

Are Topical Creams for Arthritis Effective?

This can vary significantly from person to person. Some people see great relief with a simple salicylate cream. Others don’t feel a difference with a prescription NSAID cream with a counterirritant.

The good news about topical creams for arthritis is that they do not usually cause severe side effects. They also make it much easier to target directly on the inflamed joint. For this reason, they also tend to work better on joints that are easily accessible, like elbows and hands.

However, just because they are usually benign does not mean they cannot be used unsafely. Follow the instructions on the packaging, alert your doctor that you are using them, and avoid using them for extended periods. Most brands instruct you not to use them more than four times in a day.

Basic precautions should be taken when using topical creams for arthritis. These include washing your hands before and after using the cream and avoiding touching your face with cream on your hands.

Since arthritis is a degenerative condition, there may come a time when topical creams alone are not enough to manage your pain. Talk to your doctor about other options for pain relief like painkillers or anti-inflammatory medications. You may also benefit from longer-term arthritis treatment like DMARDs or biologics.

Final Notes

Topical creams for arthritis pain relief are often a great first treatment option for people recently experiencing arthritis symptoms. They are accessible, affordable, and often provide relief with little risk of side effects.

However, if you are experiencing any arthritis symptoms, you should also speak with a doctor. Do not use arthritis creams as an excuse to delay getting the care you need.