The choice between a topical pain reliever and an oral pain pill is an important one.
You have to consider efficacy, safety, ease of use, and availability.
The good news is all of that’s not nearly as difficult to figure out as it first seems.
Let’s take a closer look at topical pain relief…
What Are We Talking About?
We’re going to look at these 3 categories of pain reliever: topical pain relievers, over the counter (OTC) oral pain relievers, and prescription oral pain relievers.
There are different kinds of topical pain relievers, as well: prescription, analgesic, and counterirritant. So we’ll be sure to clarify which is being discussed when.
And don’t be concerned about the word “counterirritant.” It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. That’s the word used to describe active ingredients, menthol and capsaicin, because of how they work.
The Pros of Topical Pain Relief
Regardless of if you’re considering a prescription, an analgesic, or a counterirritant for topical pain relief, the pros are pretty straight forward.
- Targeted – Instead of flooding your whole system with medication, topical pain relievers focus on the joint or muscle that hurts, keeping the medication focused exactly where you need it.
- Faster – Oral pain relievers can take as long as 2 hours to start working. Topical pain relievers can start working in less than a minute.
- No pills – Some people in pain may be dealing with medical conditions that prevent them from digesting pills efficiently. Some people may have a hard time keeping track of which pill they’ve taken so far. And some people just don’t want to have to choke down yet another pill. Topical pain relief can be exactly what these people need.
The Pros of Oral Pain Relief
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t take pain pills. They have their own list of pros, as well.
- Total body pain relief – Topical pain relievers work best for a small, localized area. For all-over pain, getting medication throughout your body is important in order to get all the relief you need. Related to that is the fact that topical pain relievers work best on muscle and joint pain. Since oral pain relievers aren’t targeted, they can take on pain in areas that topical pain relievers can’t reach.
- Skin sensitivity – For people with sensitive skin, topical pain relievers can sometimes create a problem, rather than eliminate one. Swapping out one pain for another isn’t the goal.
- Mobility – Often pain makes moving difficult. Muscles grab up, joints stiffen up, and movement is limited. If you can’t reach the site of your pain, you can’t apply a topical pain reliever. Pain pills give you the ability to ease your pain, even if you can’t reach your back or your toes or your shoulders…
Answering the Big Question – Do Topical Pain Relievers Work?
As valid as all of these pros are, though, none of them answers the biggest question about topical pain relief: does it work?
We've got good news…
Topical pain relievers can work as well as any oral pain reliever.
Prescription pain pills and prescription topical pain relievers frequently have the same active ingredient, so it makes sense that they are equally as effective.
But what about the OTC products? Can a topical pain reliever provide as much relief as a dose of the pain killer you’ve always reached for?
There are 3 primary active ingredients in topical pain relievers – menthol, capsaicin, and methyl salicylate.
As we mentioned before, menthol and capsaicin are “counterirritants” which means they “distract” the body from the pain, bringing relief. Methyl salicylate is a topical version of the same active ingredient as aspirin, and you know aspirin works.
More importantly though is that all 3 of them have been researched, studied, and approved for topical pain relief. In other words, they work to bring you topical pain relief.
What About Safety? Are Topical Pain Relievers as Safe as Oral Pain Relievers?
Topical pain relievers are medicines, and as with any medicine, you need to follow the dosing instructions. In general, though, topical pain relievers, especially the counterirritants, can actually be safer than oral pain relievers.
When dealing with prescription, or analgesic, topical pain relievers, the warnings and risks associated with the oral versions still apply.
If the oral version has a risk of addiction or overdose, the topical pain relief comes with those same risks. If you need to avoid an oral version of an ingredient, you should be especially careful – or avoid entirely – using the topical pain relief version as well.
The counterirritants – menthol and capsaicin – have fewer risks of side effects. While some people don’t care for the smell of menthol, that’s not really a side effect.
So, allergies and skin sensitivities are the most common side effects, making them a safe and effective choice for topical pain relief.
Only you and your doctor can decide if topical pain relief, or oral pain relief, will balance all of your needs best.
But having the information you need to help you make an educated decision is the smartest first move you can make. Do your research. Learn the facts. Talk to your doctor. You’ll know which pain reliever is best for you and your health.