Harvard Health Letter

Rubbing it in

Pain-relief creams and ointments can get the medicine right to where it hurts, and the smell is often familiar and soothing. But do they work?

When something like a knee hurts, there's a natural tendency to rub it. And if it really hurts, most of us will think about popping a pain-relieving pill of some kind — acetaminophen (Tylenol) for starters, or perhaps one of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn).

But there are also dozens of topical pain relievers — creams, ointments, and oils that let us rub and get our pain medication. The over-the-counter products are sometimes grouped into a "muscle rub" section at the drugstore. The cortisone creams and other products for dealing with minor skin irritations are in a different section and aren't covered in this article.

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