Rub-on pain reliever can ease arthritis discomfort

When it comes to relieving the pain of achy joints, many people reach for a pain-relieving pill like aspirin or ibuprofen. There may be a better way. When the source of pain is close to the surface, applying a cream, gel, patch, or spray that contains a pain reliever right where it hurts can ease pain and help avoid some of the body-wide side effects of oral pain relievers.

As I write in this month’s Harvard Men’s Health Watch, these so-called topical analgesics work best for more superficial joints like the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and hands. “In those areas, the medication can penetrate closer to the joint,” says Dr. Rosalyn Nguyen, a clinical instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.

The active ingredient in most topical analgesics is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, or diclofenac. These medications target inflammation, which contributes to pain, swelling, and stiffness.

We know that oral NSAIDs can quell arthritis pain. Do they work as well when applied to the skin? A scientific review by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international body of health experts, found that some prescription topical NSAIDs can offer the same pain relief as oral medications with fewer gastrointestinal concerns.

The advantage of using a topical analgesic is that the medication works locally. Targeting pain more precisely using a medication applied to the skin can help skirt the side effects of oral drugs. This can be a boon for people whose stomachs are sensitive to NSAIDs. (Keep in mind that a small amount of the medicine still enters the bloodstream and ends up in the stomach and elsewhere, so a topical analgesic isn’t a guarantee against NSAID-related stomach irritation.)

Other people seek topical NSAIDs because they want to avoid adding another pill to their daily regimen, or have trouble taking pills.

Read the complete article @ Harvard Health Blog.

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