Updated December 2021
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Buying guide for best pain relief creams

Oh, your aching muscles and sore joints. Whether you went too hard at your workout, spent an afternoon moving heavy boxes, or just suffer with the misery of arthritis, just about everyone occasionally needs sweet relief from simple aches and pains. To the rescue: pain relief creams.

These topical treatments are sold over the counter and contain a wide range of ingredients that help relieve minor to moderate pain in a variety of ways. Some heat up; others cool down. Some reduce inflammation; others block pain receptors so they can’t send signals to your brain telling it that something hurts.

But while there’s a pain relief cream for just about every kind of ache, the choices can be quite overwhelming when you’re facing multiple choices at the drugstore or online pharmacy. That’s why we’ve taken the headache out of understanding, choosing, and using the right pain relief cream for your needs.

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There are many active ingredients used in OTC pain-relieving creams. Some work by reducing pain signals to the brain, some distract nerves, and some reduce inflammation.

What’s in a pain relief cream?

Most pain relief creams have a lotion-like and somewhat moisturizing base. They often contain mineral oil, glycerin, and other ingredients that are easy on the skin and absorb well without leaving a greasy or sticky film. The majority of these products are sold in a tube, but you’ll also find pump dispensers, jars, and even roll-on formats.

But it’s the active ingredients that really distinguish one product from another, and there are quite a few different active ingredients you’re likely to find on drugstore shelves. These ingredients fall into six basic groups: salicylates, anesthetics, capsaicin, counterirritants, hemp oil or CBD, and herbal or homeopathic formulas. Many pain-relieving creams combine two or more ingredients from more than one category.

Salicylates: Salicylate, or salicylic acid, is the active metabolite in aspirin. It’s often included in pain-relieving creams in the form of wintergreen oil, which has a distinct and strong fragrance. This pain buster helps relieve discomfort by reducing inflammation and swelling. It’s especially good for muscle pain caused by overuse or arthritic joint pain. When applied topically, the salicylic acid penetrates the skin to reduce pain and swelling inside achy joints. People who are sensitive or allergic to aspirin should not use pain-relieving creams containing salicylates.

Anesthetics: Anesthetics numb the treated area, reducing pain signals sent to the brain. The common anesthetic used in OTC pain relievers is lidocaine. It’s an effective treatment for musculoskeletal pain caused by arthritis or overuse injuries.

Capsaicin: Capsaicin is the naturally occurring substance in chili peppers that gives them their fiery bite. When applied topically, capsaicin stimulates a feeling of heat on the skin, which can be intense at first. But the biggest benefit comes from capsaicin’s ability to block pain signals from traveling between irritated nerves and the brain. It can take a few days of regular application before you’ll feel the full benefits of capsaicin cream. These creams are especially effective for treating diabetic nerve pain and arthritic joint pain.  

Counterirritants: There are several active ingredients commonly used as counterirritants, including menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, and oil of evergreen. Counterirritants don’t directly act on swollen or inflamed muscles and joints; instead, they create simultaneous sensations of coolness and warmth on the skin, which distracts your nerves and cuts down on perceived pain. These are helpful treatments for overuse injuries and minor muscle pain.

Hemp oil and CBD: Not to be confused with THC, the component of marijuana that gets you high, CBD (cannabidiol), which is often extracted from hemp oil, is said to relieve muscle and joint pain when applied topically by reducing inflammation and desensitizing pain receptors. CBD pain-relieving creams are often recommended for arthritis and fibromyalgia pain.

Herbal and homeopathic products: Homeopathic treatments are based on the principle that applying or ingesting very tiny quantities of an active ingredient that potentially could cause a symptom if consumed in larger amounts helps create a sort of immune response against that symptom. Ingredients used in homeopathic treatments can be quite obscure, but some more common plant and herbal extracts are also used in these products. The plant extract most studied and proven to truly help relieve pain and inflammation when applied topically is arnica. Some other plant-based ingredients often included in natural pain-relieving creams include turmeric, chamomile, rosemary, boswellia, and willow bark. These treatments are good for minor muscle pain, bruises, swollen joints, and post-surgical swelling and bruising.

Pain relief cream prices

The majority of pain relief creams cost less than $25, and many cost under $10. As a general rule, you’ll pay more for creams containing capsaicin, CBD, or herbal active ingredients and less for those containing just counterirritants or lidocaine.


Many people assume that because a medication is sold over the counter, it must be safe to use in any fashion. Although you aren’t likely to be injured by an OTC pain-relieving cream, you’ll get the best results by following these tips.

  • Follow the package directions. Don’t apply the treatment more frequently, or for a longer time, than recommended. And unless directed by a medical professional, don’t apply a pain-relieving treatment to a baby or toddler.
  • Don’t apply the treatment to irritated skin. Avoid sores, rashes, blisters, and burns.
  • If you need to apply a bandage over the area being treated, keep the bandage loose. Remove it periodically to let your skin breathe.
  • Use with caution. Keep the cream away from your eyes, nostrils, mouth, and genital region. Wash your hands before and after applying the cream.
  • If you are on prescription blood thinners or taking daily aspirin, check with your doctor before applying a pain relief cream that contains salicylates. This ingredient could increase the effects of blood thinners.
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Pain relief creams are best for muscular or joint pain that’s near the surface of the skin. They aren’t intended for deep pain in the abdomen, pelvis, or chest.
"You may find one pain-relieving cream works better for your needs than another, based on the active ingredients."


Q. Do pain-relieving creams really work?
While you won’t get the kind of pain relief from an OTC pain relief cream that you’d get from a prescription medication or an oral pain reliever, these treatments can provide quite a bit of relief for minor pain in the joints and muscles. They are especially good for treating arthritis pain, bursitis, tendonitis, sore muscles from overuse, bruised or swollen joints, and minor strains and sprains.

Q. What should I do if the pain-relieving cream doesn’t help?
. If you’ve used a pain relief cream as directed for a week without improvement, it’s time to call your doctor. She can prescribe stronger medications or check for more serious conditions that require a different type of treatment.

Q. Are pain-relieving creams safe for everyone?
As a general rule, these treatments are safe for most people. If you are on prescription blood thinners, however, stay away from creams containing salicylates as the active ingredient, as this can cause bleeding or bruising. Pain-relieving creams should not be used on infants or toddlers.

Side effects are rare but may include burning, itching, or a rash at the application site. If you experience any type of skin irritation or rash while using a pain relief cream, stop applying the product, and see your doctor if the irritation doesn’t clear up within a few days.

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