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The Basics of Topical Pain Relief for Arthritis

If you suffer from arthritis, you know that upon entering the pharmacy to look for a way to relieve the pain, you will be greeted by an overwhelming list of options. Whether you prefer creams, patches, sprays, or balms, there is a product that promises to ease the pain. It’s important for you to know what exactly goes into each product and how effective it is so that you don’t purchase a dud that doesn’t do anything to soothe that achy knee. Here’s what you need to know:


Whether you choose a cream or a spray, the majority of topical pain relievers that you can find over-the-counter at a pharmacy are either counterirritants, salicylates, capsaicin, or lidocaine products. Counterirritants were designed to keep your mind off of the pain, [1] while salicylates yield minor anti-inflammatory effects [2]. Capsaicin products, which you may associate with chili peppers, will help to obstruct pain pathways and keep you from feeling too much discomfort, while lidocaine products are similar to local anesthetics. Options such as Lidocaine (5%), Diclofenac (3% & 1%) gel can be a solution.

The majority of these options are made to be put on topically right above the affected area. They usually yield some pain relief in the region, but not enough to make the pain go away.


There are two general types of prescription options when it comes to arthritis pain: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which some may know as NSAIDS, and concentrated topical lidocaine products. The former is available in both topical and oral forms, but many patients report better results with topical options because they do not affect your digestive system. [3] However, these options may still interact with other medications. It is for this reason that you should always consult a doctor and ensure that they are aware of any other medications that you may be taking.

What do I need to know about topical options?

Topical arthritis medications are made to be absorbed through the patient’s skin. [4] The majority of over-the-counter options provide local, surface relief, while prescription options often contain ingredients that can be taken into the bloodstream.

There are quite a few things that affect the absorption rate of arthritis medications. For one, the type of medication and the active ingredients that it contains will play a part. Two, the patient’s body and the way it works will make a difference. There are some products that work better on achy joints that are close to the surface – your knuckles and knees, for instance. Joints that lie deeper underneath the surface, such as the lower back or hips, may require something a little bit more intense.

Some arthritis medications contain active ingredients that can enter the bloodstream. [5]For this reason, it is important to consult your pharmacist and tell them about any other medications you may be taking, even if you are purchasing something over-the-counter. This is to make sure that nothing is interacting or producing unpleasant side effects. You may also want to remember to wear gloves when applying any medication topically in order to not absorb any more than you should be.

Can I use topical arthritis medication along with other treatment options?

It isn’t uncommon for people to take topical arthritis medication along with other treatments – physical therapy, massage, and perhaps even hydrotherapy. This is a great way to soothe as much pain as possible. In fact, studies have shown that patients suffering from hand arthritis were able to experience a greater level of pain relief with a combination of topical medication and hand massage than they were with massage on its own.



1. “Counterirritant.” NeuroImage, Academic Press,

2. Eustice, Carol. “Side Effects of Treating Arthritis With Salicylates.” Verywell Health, Verywellhealth,

3. “What Is the Advantage of Using Topical Medication over Pills for Arthritis? | Arthritis Treatment.” Sharecare,

4. Falla, Kathee de. “Prescription Topical Arthritis Pain Relief.” Arthritis-Health,

5. “Topical NSAIDs Offer Rub-on Relief.”,

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