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Do Arthritis Creams Really Work?

When you are suffering from arthritis pain, you’re willing to try almost anything to get relief. Could rubbing cream onto your joints really provide you any relief though?

Some people find that it does. But what ingredients should you look for, and what joints do arthritis creams help the most? How do you safely use a topical cream to reduce pain?

If you're looking at trying an arthritis cream to ease your pain, this article is for you.

How Do Topical Arthritis Creams Work

Arthritis creams are rubbed into the skin so that their active ingredients can be absorbed and soothe your joints. They may come in the form of gels, sprays, ointments, roll-ons, or even patches.

Patches are generally most useful if targeting a large area like your lower back. Spray and roll-on applications are great mess-free options. Many arthritis creams are available over-the-counter, but some have to be prescribed by your doctor.
The difference is the active ingredient in different arthritis creams varies as do the ingredient amounts.

Active Ingredients in Arthritis Creams


Ingredients in creams


Capsaicin is often talked about with spicy peppers, but this ingredient can be used in arthritis creams to decrease the number of pain signals that are transmitted to the brain.

When you begin to use the cream, it may cause mild discomfort or a stinging sensation, but this should fade with regular use.

It’s important to use extreme caution when using creams with capsaicin. Consider using latex gloves for applying the cream.


Creams that use salicylates as an active ingredient work by increasing blood flow and blocking chemicals in the body that cause pain. 

Salicylates are similar to aspirin, so if you have ever had a reaction to aspirin you may not want to use these creams.

You should also not use these creams if you are currently prescribed blood thinners.


Counterirritants intend to “distract” your brain from the joint pain you are experiencing. They do this by causing a cooling, heating, or tingling sensation when applied to the skin. 

Counterirritants include things like menthol, eucalyptus, camphor, and other plant extracts.

These creams are best if your pain is on the mild side as the more pain you are experiencing, the more difficult it will be for your brain to ignore the pain signals over the cooling/heating feelings.


Prescription arthritis creams use the same ingredient often found in oral treatments – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

The benefit of administering NSAIDs through a cream and not orally is that it doesn't cause issues with the lining of the stomach the way oral treatments commonly do. 

NSAIDs applied topically help to reduce the inflammation in the joints and provide pain relief.

Due to the amount of the drug in the cream, it is only available under the direction of your doctor. Do not combine prescription and non-prescription creams.

What Joints Get the Most Relief From Arthritis Creams?

Joints that are directly beneath the skin are likely to gain the most benefit from arthritis cream. The joints in your hands, knees, and shoulders are joints more likely to get relief from arthritis creams. Joints, like the hips, that are deeper in the body may be harder to treat with a topical agent.

Arthritis pain caused by inflammatory arthritis types may not respond as well to creams. Topical creams are an alternative treatment ideal for people who:

  •  Are 65+ years old and are trying to avoid adding oral medications.
  • Have conditions that affect the stomach since the cream doesn’t come in contact with the stomach the way pills do.
  • Have a cardiovascular condition as the active ingredient in creams often doesn’t enter the bloodstream.
  • Are at risk of becoming addicted to narcotic pain relievers.

 If you are experiencing moderate to severe pain in your joints, topical arthritis creams may not be the best treatment option for you.

Creams are ideal for people with mild to low-end moderate joint pain that they need temporary relief from. If you are experiencing near-constant pain, you will likely want to look into treatment options that offer more long-lasting effects.

Tips for Safely Using Arthritis Cream

Tips for using cream

Now that you know how arthritis creams work, you need to know how to use them safely. Whether you are using over-the-counter or prescription creams, there are some precautions you need to take to limit the risk of side effects.
You will need to follow the below guidelines when using topical arthritis treatments:
  • Test the cream on a small area first to be sure you will not develop a reaction.
  • Stop using the cream immediately if you notice any skin irritation or other reaction.
  • Always use the cream as directed per the product instructions.
  • Be sure to wash your hands prior to applying the cream as well as after application. You may find it helpful to wear gloves when applying.
  • If using the cream on your hands, be cautious of handling items, especially food.
  • Do not let the cream make contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Never apply products to areas where the skin is broken.
  • Do not cover the cream with any sort of gauze or bandage.
  • Do not use the cream more than four times daily, unless otherwise directed.
  • Do not use cream in multiple places or over large surface areas as it may cause you to unintentionally overuse the product.
  • Always consult your doctor before using an arthritis cream as it may not be compatible with certain conditions or medications.

As with all treatments, there is the potential for side effects, but arthritis creams are a less invasive way to provide relief. You and your doctor will want to consider how it will pair with any of your other types of pain management.

Final Thoughts


Arthritis creams can be helpful for the joints close enough to the skin to come in contact with the active ingredients.
It’s important to use them safely though, just like all other treatments. Don’t overuse the creams or change to a cream with a different active ingredient without talking to your physician.
If you’re suffering from mild to moderate arthritis pain, a topical cream is a low-risk treatment worth trying.




Anita Tornello

What arthritis cream either prescription, or over the counter, specifically would you recommend? Having quite a bit of knee and hip pain. Appreciate any help you can give.
Thanks, anita


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