When joint pain cries out for relief but ibuprofen and other over-the-counter medicines upset the stomach, it may be worth trying a gentler alternative: anti-inflammatory pain relievers applied to the skin, not taken as a pill, reports the January 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch.
Pain relievers applied to the skin are called topical analgesics. Prescription versions, which usually deliver nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), come as creams, sprays, gels, or patches. The active ingredient soaks in through the skin to reach the pain. In contrast, oral pain relievers flood the whole body with the medication after being absorbed in the gut. The most widely available prescription topical NSAID in U.S. pharmacies is diclofenac gel.
"Topical pain relievers can be very helpful for the more superficial joints like the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and hands," says Dr. Rosalyn Nguyen, a clinical instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "In those areas, the medication can penetrate closer to the joint."
The source of pain usually determines if a topical pain reliever is appropriate. For a localized problem with just one joint causing the pain, there's no need for medication to travel throughout the body. A topical analgesic isn't that helpful when pain emanates across an extended area, like the lower back.
Keep in mind that even with a topical analgesic, a small amount of the NSAID gets into the bloodstream. That may be enough to cause trouble for among people who have had ulcers or experienced gastrointestinal bleeding with an oral NSAID.
Not ready to commit to a prescription topical drug? It might be worth trying an over-the-counter product such as Icy Hot or Bengay, which temporarily mask pain with a sensation of coolness or heat. Other topical analgesics contain aspirin-like salicylates that have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. A third type contains capsaicin, the stuff that makes hot peppers so fiery. This substance overwhelms pain-sensing nerve circuits and masks the sensations from the underlying injury.
Read the full-length article: "Get rub-on relief for arthritis joint pain"