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The Best Pain Relief Creams For Instant Relief From Back Pain 

Using a topical pain relief cream can bring relief to your aching muscles and joints, so find the right one for your back here.

best pain relief creams

Anyone who suffers from persistent back pain will be all too familiar with the feeling of aching muscles and stiff joints. 

But what can you do to stop it?

There are a few things you can do that will take lessen the pain in the long-term, such as staying active, working on your posture, or strengthening your core muscles.

But if you're looking for instant relief, then a good option would be to use a topical pain relief cream.

As these get straight to the source of pain to either block it, numb it, or distract you away from it.

And in this article I'll review and recommend the following creams:

But firstly I'll explain how these creams work, which benefits you'll get from using them, and the dangers and possible side-effects you need to be aware of.

How Do Pain Relief Creams Work?

There are a few varieties of pain relief creams on the market and they all help to give you relief from pain but in different ways.

  • Some work by numbing pain and reducing inflammation.
  • Others block pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • While others distract your mind away from the pain thus lowering it's impact.

What is common though is that each cream is absorbed through the skin, which makes them very effective at targeting pain in muscles and joints that are close to the skin's surface.

However, they can't get into deep-lying muscle and joint problems that exist for some people with lower back pain.

This is because the medication that some creams carry dilutes as it penetrates, meaning it can only reach so far.

But having said that, pain creams do provide a safer alternative to taking pain medication orally, which can be a cause of stomach irritations and cardiovascular problems.

And this is a big problem, with an average of 100,000 Americans per year spending time in hospital with stomach problems caused by taking NSAID medication.​

So creams are safer because they carry a much smaller dosage than a pill so less gets into your bloodstream.

Also a pain relief cream directly targets the problem area only, unlike ingesting a pill into the stomach, so they are less harmful to your stomach lining.

So using a pain relief cream rather than pain medication to keep your pain at bay makes sense.

However when choosing which cream to try you need to know which type of cream you are looking for.

As different creams contain different ingredients and do different things.

And they typically fall into one of the following three categories:

Salicylates

Aspirin

Photo credit: Chaval Brasil.

Salicylate creams provide heat to the area where they are applied and contain medication which numbs and desensitizes the aggravated nerves in the muscles and joints close to the skins surface.​

So they are NSAID creams and contain similar ingredients to aspirin but come with a much lower risk of stomach irritation.

This is because the aspirin is absorbed directly into the nerves in your skin rather than being processed inside your stomach.​

And when absorbed the cream also helps to reduce inflammation, which will make you feel less stiff and sore.

So salicylate pain relief creams are among the best for consistent pain relief.

However, they may not be suitable for you if you are allergic to aspirin or taking any blood-thinning medication.

Counterirritants

cold therapy

Photo credit: Liz West.

Counterirritant creams (which typically include menthol) temporarily soothe minor muscle and joint pain by providing a cooling sensation to your skin.

And the relief you feel is immediate, as these creams work by stimulating your nerves and distracting your mind away from the pain you are feeling.

So basically the cooling sensation takes over your senses to the point where it overrides any pain signals being sent to the brain.

And by giving you something else to think about instead of your pain they are lowering its hold over you.

This kind of cold therapy also works in a similar way to applying ice packs in that the cold sensation reduces nerve activity and blood flow to the pain area.

However the big advantage of using a cooling pain cream over ice is that you can stay mobile and active while it's working.

So it's great for people on the move.

The downside to this type of cream is that the relief it brings is temporary and it's only useful for minor pain.

Capsaicin

capsaicin

Capsaicin is the main ingredient of red hot chilli peppers that give them their heat.

So creams made with this ingredient provide a satisfying burning sensation to your painful areas.

Which is great.

As the heat lowers your pain levels by blocking the skins nerve receptors from transmitting pain signals to the brain.

It does this by depleting them of a chemical (substance P) that is vital for this function.

However while these creams are among the most effective for pain relief, it may take ​time and regular applications for this effect to take place. 

And the burning sensation that comes with them may be far too intense for some​ people.

As they can be very hot!

However, if you don't mind feeling the burn (personally I quite enjoy it!), then they can help you get through the day more comfortably when in pain.

The Benefits Of Using Pain Relief Creams

benefits of pain relief creams

While all three types of pain relief creams can provide short-term relief from lower back pain, there's no evidence to suggest they can be effective over the long-term. 

So they need to be used as a short-term solution only.

However they still bring you many great benefits when you use them regularly, such as:

  • Providing almost immediate pain relief.
  • They can block pain signals in the nerves of your skin from transmitting to your brain.
  • Reduce inflammation, which helps to lower the pressure and pain in your lower back muscles and joints.
  • They provide a more targeted pain relief than taking a pill.
  • And are a safer alternative to taking pain medication orally.
  • They can provide a quick fix when you need something to get you through a tough day.
  • You can use them while still remaining active.

So used in the right way these creams can be a major help to coping with back pain.

The Dangers Of Using Pain Relief Creams

While there are plenty of good reasons to use a pain relief cream, they are not without problems.

And because of this it's always best to consult your doctor before you begin using them to make sure they are suitable for you.

But as a guideline I'll outline a few things you need to be aware of below:

  • Salicylate creams may not be suitable for you if you are allergic to aspirin or taking any blood-thinning medication.
  • You should never apply creams to open wounds or skin that is damaged.
  • Also never use a cream at the same time as wearing a heating pad as this can cause burns to your skin.
  • Using pain relief creams too often can be toxic, so read the instructions and follow them carefully!
  • Make sure you wash your hands well after applying the cream. Anyone who has cooked with chilli knows the mistake of touching your eye (or worse!) with your hands before washing them.
  • Don't apply a bandage over skin where you've applied a pain relief cream, as this can intensify the burning sensation and cause damage.
  • Pain relief creams may not be suitable for people with liver or kidney problems.
  • Don't apply cream to irritated skin. People with eczema or dermatitis should consult their doctors before use.
  • And always stop using a cream immediately if it causes skin irritation or sensitivity.
  • Don't apply cream straight after you get out of the shower. Your pores will be open making your skin too sensitive.
  • And don't shower too soon after applying the cream either, as moisture and water can reactivate it and cause burns and discomfort.

However if you use your pain relief cream in the correct way and you should be able to steer clear of most of these issues.

The Best Over The Counter Pain Relief Creams For Back Pain

So now you're clued up on the benefits and dangers of using pain relief creams, here are what I consider the best options on the market to relieve your back pain at work.

I've picked one in each category so you can choose the type that suits you the best.

But always consult your doctor before using any creams especially if you have allergies, existing health conditions, or are already taking medication.

Best Salicylate Cream

Strength

  • Contains Trolamine Salicylate (10%) which numbs the aggravated nerves.
  • Provides relief for minor pain and inflammation.
  • However may not be strong enough for all.

Comfort

  • No burning sensation unlike other creams.
  • Contains aloe and is kind on the skin.
  • Non-greasy and odourless.

Side Effects

  • People with allergies need to be careful when using this.
  • Consult your doctor before use if you are taking any medication.
  • Other than that very few side-effects.

The Aspercreme Analgesic Cream Rub is a great choice if you are looking for a salicylate cream for your back pain.

As it contains Trolamine Salicylate (10%) which works to numb the area of pain and block the aggravated nerves in your lower back.

Which brings you almost immediate relief from minor pain, although this relief can sometimes be short-lived.

The salicylate formula in this cream also reduces inflammation in the pain area, which eases the strain on your lower back muscles.

And by reducing inflammation you can lower the amount of soreness you feel in your body.

So if you suffer from stiff muscles this cream is really good.

It's also a comfortable one to use, as it has a non-greasy formula containing aloe which makes it easily absorbed and kind on your skin.

And it lacks the extremes of hot or cold sensations that come with counterirritant and capsaicin creams, instead providing a gentle numbing sensation.

There are also very few reported side-effects from using Aspercreme.

However, because of the salicylate content it's not suitable for anyone with an allergy to aspirin.

And it may interfere with certain medications, so you need to get the green light from your doctor if you are already taking any.

Also another problem with this cream over the others is that it may not be strong enough for some people to get pain relief from.

And the relief you do get is mostly temporary meaning you have to keep using it regularly.

But having said that it has been shown to be a good option for providing consistent pain relief for many.

PRO​S

  • Provides the benefits of aspirin with less risk of stomach irritation.
  • Numbs pain area and desensitises aggravated nerves.
  • Reduces inflammation.
  • Safer to apply than capsaicin creams.
  • Not irritating for the skin and no burning sensation.
  • Non-greasy and rubs in well.
  • Odour free.
  • Can use at night too without affecting sleep.

CONS

  • Not suitable for those with aspirin allergies.
  • Pain relief effects may be only minor and temporary.

Best Counterirritant Cream

Strength

  • Contains menthol (4%) providing a cooling effect.
  • Not as strong a sensation as capsaicin creams.
  • NSAIDs (drug) free.
  • Quite mild. Not strong enough for more than minor pain.

Comfort

  • Cooling sensation feels nice.
  • Non-greasy and contains aloe, so kind on the skin.

Side Effects

  • No major side-effects, although instructions need to be adhered to.

The Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel is a good choice for temporary relief from minor aches and pains.

As it contains menthol (4%) which provides a cooling sensation when applied to an area of pain.

And this cooling sensation stimulates the skin's pain receptors to the extent where they are overridden when trying to transmit pain signals to the brain.

This cream has been scientifically tested for it's effectiveness and as such is recommended by many chiropractors, massage therapists, and physical therapists.

And it gives you very similar benefits to applying ice to your sore muscles.

However, Biofreeze gel has been found to be nearly twice as powerful at relieving pain than ice in studies.

And the added advantage of using Biofreeze is that you can stay active and moving while it's taking effect.

Also the fact that Biofreeze is free from NSAID medication means that it's safer to use than salicylate creams.

The mixture of menthol with specially selected herbs including aloe, green tea, and lemon balm, mean it's easy to apply and kind to your skin.

And it absorbs quickly, which means it can get to work almost immediately on your aches and pains.

So what are the downsides?​

Well for starters, while this gel is good for relieving minor aches and pains it may not be strong enough to distract you away from higher levels of muscle pain.

Also the pain relief that it does bring is only temporary. 

And being a distractor rather than medicinal, Biofreeze doesn't numb the actual muscle pain like aspirin-based salicylate creams can.

Which means that the pain may return faster than you'd like it to.

However, sometimes the cooling sensation as a distraction is enough.

And it should also be said that the menthol carries an odour that can be long-lasting after application which may irritate some people.

However if you can get past the smell, this is a great choice for a safe, easy to apply, and effective temporary pain relief cream.

PRO​S

  • Menthol provides a cooling sensation that overrides pain signals to the brain.
  • Absorbs quickly providing immediate relief.
  • Provides a stronger effect than applying ice and allows you to stay active too.
  • Recommended by medical professionals.
  • Scientifically tested for effectiveness.
  • Drug-free.
  • Non-greasy.

CONS

  • Pain relief is only temporary.
  • Good for minor pain relief but not as effective for stronger pain.
  • Menthol has an odour to it that may irritate some people.

Best Capsaicin Cream

Strength

  • Highly potent - contains 0.1% capsaicin.
  • Intense burning sensation on nerves blocks pain signals.
  • Works well for chronic pain relief if used regularly.

Comfort

  • High capsaicin content provides an intense burning sensation which may be too hot for some.
  • This burning sensation can last for hours, causing problems sleeping.
  • Burning sensation can reactivate with moisture.

Side Effects

  • Gives off a stinging and burning sensation when applied.
  • Can cause coughing, sneezing, and breathing problems if the residue gets up your nose.
  • May interfere with certain allergies.
  • May cause irritation in people with sensitive skin.

The Capzasin-HP Topical Analgesic Cream is my top pick for this category.

As it contains the highest amount of capsaicin (0.1%) in any over the counter cream on the market, making it extremely strong.

​And boy can you feel it!

But the strength of the capsaicin means it's highly effective in relieving back pain.

However the power of the heat may also be too much for some people. 

And as well as being intense, this burning sensation can be long-lasting.

With people reporting that not only was it too uncomfortable for them, it even made it difficult to get to sleep that night!

And this cream can also reactivate and burn with exposure to any moisture, so you need to be careful if you're prone to sweating or live in a warm climate.

While showers directly before or after application of this cream are a definite no-no!

Also the strength of the heat in this cream means you need to be very careful when applying it.

As the residue can hang around on your hands and get underneath your fingertips causing havoc later on.

And be careful not to breathe any of this residue up your nostrils, as it can cause you breathing problems and bring on sneezing and coughing fits.

So take Bill Clinton's advice and don't inhale!

But as you are applying this to your lower back you are less at risk than someone who is using it for shoulder or neck pain.

So having read up till now you're probably thinking "Why is this guy recommending this cream if it comes with all these issues?".

Well just like when they are in food, the heat of chillies divides opinion. Some love them while others hate them.

And this is the same when rubbing a cream infused with chillies into your skin.​

So while the heat will definitely be too intense for some, others will enjoy the deep burning sensation.

And everyone has a different pain threshold and tolerance to heat,  and this tolerance will go up the more you use the cream.

Which means the burning sensation will feel more comfortable in time.

And if you can stand the heat, the strength of the cream means that it is highly effective in stimulating the nerves and blocking pain signals to the brain.

Making it a great option for people with chronic back pain.

Now this cream does need to be used regularly and for a period of at least a week or two before it will be truly effective.

However many people have found it relieves their back pain while doing activities so it's definitely worth a try.

And if you really can't handle the heat you can try the lighter version 'Capzasin Quick Relief Gel' which contains only a quarter of the capsaicin (0.025%) used in this cream.

PRO​S

  • The high capsaicin content means it's highly effective in restricting pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • Increases blood flow which helps to heal sore muscles.
  • Good for muscle pain relief for people with chronic pain.
  • Odour free.

CONS

  • The burning sensation is so intense and lasting that it will not be suitable for all.
  • Burning sensation reactivates with moisture, so no good if you sweat lots.
  • Needs to be used regularly for a couple of weeks to be effective.

And If You Need Something A Little Bit Stronger...

Over the counter creams can bring a lot of relief to most people who suffer from back pain.

However, for others they may not touch the sides.

And if you fall into the latter category don't despair, as there are stronger creams available on prescription in the US.

These creams usually contain diclofenac, which provides stronger pain relief and helps to reduce any inflammation.

And a good one to ask your doctor about is Voltaren (you can find a review of it here).

While this is predominantly more for joint pain and arthritis, it is also really effective for back pain and inflammation.

And if you are in the UK you can get this cream over the counter under the name Voltarol.

Do Pain Relief Creams Actually Work?

This may seem like a strange way to end an article outlining the virtues of pain relief creams, but I think it's only fair to relay both sides of the argument.

Because while some people swear by them, others say they have little or no effect on them at all.

And the science regarding them is just as muddled.

For instance, the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota was quoted in the New York Times as saying there was no evidence out there to support or refute the effectiveness of pain relieving creams.

And there is also some debate over whether these creams will work on lower back pain.

This is a good question as most lower back pain, especially chronic pain, doesn't involve inflammation​.

And this would seemingly make anti-inflammatory creams ineffective.​

However there is some evidence on tests carried out on rats that NSAID creams do work to lower back pain.

That being said this evidence is flimsy at best.

And there is an argument that because of the hot and cold sensations that pain relief creams give you, they may be providing nothing more than a placebo effect. 

But whatever the truth may be, it's worth trying one of the pain relief creams I've covered in this article, as they can be a big help to you during high pain periods.

And they're not really harmful as long as you heed the warnings I've outlined, so why not give them a go?

As only by testing them yourself will you discover which camp you fall into!

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Daniel

I'm a psychology graduate and a veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. I want to help people learn how to fight back against persistent back pain just like I have.