When searching for relief from pain, inflammation, swelling and stiffness, many people reach for a topical cream, gel or ointment. These products fill the shelves of drugstores and supermarkets. Though the Eastern and Western versions of these products have some different ingredients, they serve the same purpose: instant relief from pain and stiffness.
Topical pain products are used mostly for short-term relief; as soon as their active ingredients have metabolized in the body, they just about stop killing the pain. For effectiveness over the long term, they should be applied three times a day, and be part of an overall program for arthritis relief. On their own, these products can provide almost instant relief on some level to one or more symptoms and can be used to help you get through your day or night.
How Topical Products Work
There are several key ways in which the various topical products help reduce pain, swelling, inflammation and stiffness. Many of the products are known as counterirritants; they irritate your skin in a way that shifts your mind and nervous system off the pain issue. In other words, ingredients like menthol, wintergreen oil and eucalyptus are used to counter the symptomatic irritant by creating a new irritant, like redness or sensations of cold or warmth on the skin.
This process is also known as “gate control” or “gating.” It gates off or blocks the receptors in the skin from sending pain signals to the brain, instead stimulating them to send a heating or cooling signal. This “tricks” the mind into focusing on the new irritant. In turn, that convinces the nervous system into perceiving that the area is hot (drawing increased circulation) or cold (metabolically warming the area). Those actions improve the bothersome symptoms.
Many of the topical products contain salicylates, a class of chemicals that acts in a way similar to NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These chemicals appear naturally in mint, menthol and peppermint, for example, and in aspirin. They work by inhibiting the synthesis of prostaglandin, the naturally occurring and chemically related fatty acids that aid in blood pressure and body temperature regulation and that control inflammation and vascular permeability.
A Look At The Common Ingredients
Many of the most popular pain-relieving creams and gels share common ingredients like wintergreen, camphor, menthol, capsaicin and salicylate. Here is a brief overview of each component.
Wintergreen: The oil made from wintergreen leaf is often applied locally at the site of pain for treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, lower back pain, sciatica, headache and menstrual cramps. It is also used for pain, swelling, fever and nausea. In high concentrations, wintergreen acts as a counterirritant. Once wintergreen is absorbed into the skin and metabolized by the body, it changes into a salicylate and then acts like an NSAID. If you have allergies to aspirin or salicylates, do not use products containing wintergreen oil. If not, give them a try.
Menthol: An organic compound derived from the mentha (mint, peppermint) family of plants, menthol is one of nature’s best analgesics, for three reasons:
- When menthol is included in a delivery agent, like topical creams, molecules called ligands attach themselves to receptors in your cells, triggering a change.
- Menthol triggers vasodilation or the expanding of blood vessels. This expansion allows extra blood flow to the area.
- Menthol is an antipyretic, meaning it has a natural cooling effect that fools the nervous system into thinking the body is cold. This leads the nerves to send back a signal that relieves the heat of inflammation.
Camphor Oil: Extracted from two types of camphor trees, this is a stimulant that calms nerve pain, reduces inflammation and is used as an anesthetic, disinfectant and sedative. While camphor has a cooling effect on the area on which it is applied, it stimulates blood flow, helps metabolism and causes the sweating of fluids, especially in and around the joints, to reduce swelling. Its cooling nature makes it a great anti-inflammatory agent. It is very useful at reducing pain through its temporary numbing of the sensory nerves and its vasoconstriction (blood vessel contraction). Those actions take pressure off swelling around nerves. Camphor oil is a toxic substance that can be fatal if ingested in doses as little as 2 grams. External use only!
Capsaicin: The compound that gives the chili its heat and pungency and is the aspect that helps with pain symptoms. While the hot feeling conveyed by capsaicin may feel harsh at first, it does lessen with time. It is a counterirritant that produces a hot, burning sensation on the skin where applied, tricking the brain into thinking the area is hot and attracting blood flow that helps with stiffness, pain and hyperactive nerve firing. Capsaicin also works by diminishing the chemical in the body known as substance P, which is involved in transmitting pain signals to the brain.
Going Beyond Common Brands And Ingredients
Reaching for brands like Ben Gay and Icy Hot is OK, if that is all you have available. However, I’d like to introduce you to a few topical products from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
White Flower Analgesic Balm: An analgesic balm that works as a natural pain reliever for aching joints, headaches, sprains and backache. It contains wintergreen, menthol and camphor and also combines the essential oils derived from lavender, eucalyptus and peppermint. It is a potent aromatherapy agent that has a soothing and calming effect on the nerves and emotions.
Red Flower Oil: This oil is good for treating acute and chronic joint pain, muscle aches, sprains and bruising. In addition to wintergreen and camphor, red flower oil blends several essential oils. These include clove, cinnamon and turpentine (alpha pinene).
Po Sum On Oil: A warming liniment with pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects. It is uniquely made from menthol plus the essential oils of peppermint, tea, dragon blood resin, cinnamon, scute and licorice. Peppermint oil is both an analgesic (pain reliever) and antispasmodic (muscle relaxer). Dragon blood is a resin that aids in blood circulation and tissue regeneration. Cinnamon oil is a stimulant that aids blood circulation and reduces pain. Scute and licorice both help alleviate skin inflammation.
Wong Lop Kong Medicated Oil: Wong Lop Kong is one of my favorite medicated oils from Asia because it truly employs both essential oils and traditional Chinese herbal therapy. It contains camphor, safflower, peppermint, tea oil, frankincense gum resin and myrrh. Wong Lop Kong also contains dragon’s blood resin, dang gui (agnelica), salvia root (danshen) and ligusticum (chuanxiong), making this topical product great for muscle and joint pain, rheumatism, bruises, blood clots and sprains.
Best Way To Use Topical Products
Please read the labels of any of the products you are going to use prior to applying to your body. Many are harmful if applied to open wounds and scratches, if they touch the eyes or are accidentally ingested. Aside from that, applying to the painful area three times a day should offer enough relief to make a difference.