Can You Use Topical Medications to Treat Arthritis Pain?

Published: September 08, 2023
Barbara Young
By Barbara Young, PharmD

Do you wake up each morning with pain and stiffness from arthritis? You may find it useful to know that there are products that you can use topically (on the skin) to provide pain relief.

What are the advantages of using topical medications for arthritis pain relief?
These products place the drug close to the site of pain and are minimally absorbed into the body. This is helpful for people who cannot tolerate taking certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Motrin® or Aleve®, by mouth due to side effects or certain medical conditions (e.g., heart disease or stomach ulcers).

Which products are available?
Using diclofenac gel (Voltaren® Arthritis Pain; also available generically) is useful for managing discomfort by reducing pain and inflammation in the hand, wrist, elbow, foot, ankle, or knee. Be sure to use only the recommended dosage, and do not use it on more than two areas at the same time.

Capsaicin is another product that is available as a cream and patch to be placed on the skin to reduce the sense of pain in that area.

Do I need to see a doctor to get these medications?
The products mentioned here are available over the counter without a prescription. Your pharmacist can help you select the best product for your specific pain—be sure to tell them if you have any medical conditions or if you are taking other medications.

Do these products work for everyone?
It may take a little while to notice the full effects, which usually manifest within a week. If your pain does not improve or gets worse by then, you should stop using the medication and talk to your doctor about other options for pain relief.

Topical medications for pain are often recommended to provide pain relief for arthritis in certain areas of the body. Although they may not provide enough pain control for everyone, these products are a good first option for most people, especially for those unable to take NSAID medications by mouth. Be sure to read and follow the instructions on the package and ask your pharmacist if you have any questions.

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