The Best Topical Pain Relief Creams, Gels and Rubs


Topical pain relievers may be able to help you find relief if you are dealing with minor joint and muscle pain. Topical pain products can come in a few different forms including cream, gel, foam, patches, spray, sticks or roll-on (gels). As well as muscle and joint pain, some pain relieving creams may help to ease arthritis. Using a cream or gel can be a great alternative to taking a pill, not only do you not need a prescription, but they can work right away on your pain.  They also have fewer side effects than oral medication. Unfortunately not all creams or gels work well for everyone or for all different types of pain, so most people will have to experiment with more than one product before finding something that works.

We have put together a roundup of some of the most popular brands and researched what you need to look for when buying a pain relief cream for joint and muscle pain.

Top 10 Products

ProductRankingSummaryMain Active
Ingredients
Image
Penetrex Pain Relief Medication1Very popular, mild scented, Arnica based option (requires repeated applications before you begin to feel pain relief). Not best product for immediate pain relief.Arnica, Pyridoxine, MSM/DMSO2,Boswellia Serrata, Cetyl Myristoleatepenetrex
Sombra Warm Therapy Natural Pain Relieving Gel2Gives immediate pain relief with a warming sensation, works best on large areas. Absorbs quickly and won’t stain.Camphor 3%,Menthol 3%sombra
Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel for Arthritis3Very popular menthol based pain reliever. It provides immediate cool sensation to help sore muscles and aches. Great for the back and shoulders.Menthol USP 4%,biofreeze
Boiron Arnicare Arnica Gel4Best-selling Arnica based gel, popular with users who don’t like heating/cooling effects of other products. Soothing to use and will relieve pain after repeated use.Arnica montana 1X HPUS - 7%boironarnicare
Blue Emu Original Analgesic Cream5Uses odorless Emu Oil that absorbs into your skin quickly and is not greasy. It can help with sore muscles and joints.Glucosamine, MSMblue-emu
Aspercreme 6An inexpensive option that works especially well for arthritis pain.Trolamine Salicylate (10%)
Soothanol X27High end pain relief option that can provide temporary relief on contact, some find it works better on muscles than joint pain.DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), Capsaicin 0.20% & Menthol 0.12%
Topricin8All natural made without parabens, petroleum or other harmful ingredients. No side effects and safe for the whole family to use.(HPUS) Arnica Montana 6X,
Cryoderm Pain Relieving Roll-on9A roll-on with a cooling effect, can work on tension headache or migraines as well as on arthritis and back pain.Menthol
Outback Pain Relief10Roll-on that mixes anti-inflammatory oils with deep penetrating oils to create an all-natural pain reliever.Australian Tea Tree Oil, Blue Mallee Eucalyptus Oil

How to Choose the Right Product

There are so many different types of creams and gels that claim they will help relieve your pain, it can be hard to figure out what may actually work for you. You may have to try many different brands until you find one that will work for your type of pain.

Before beginning your search you can think about what type of topical product you would like to use. Do you prefer creams or gels, or maybe a roll-on would work well for you. You can also think about whether you like a cooling, heating or no effect at all. Scent is another important feature of these types of topical pain relievers to consider.

Will it work for your pain?

As mentioned above, unfortunately to find products that will work for you requires a bit of trial and error. There are a lot of factors that go into whether a product will work or not. Sometimes it is the type of pain that you are having, sometimes other medical conditions can play into whether a particular product will be effective. Most products won’t for everyone or all types of pain. Check with your doctor to see if they have any recommendations for over the counter products to try.

A number of the companies that manufacture these types of creams and gels offer a money back guarantee, so make sure you take advantage of any satisfaction guarantees that are available if something you have bought isn’t working for you.

What ingredients should you look for?

The most common ingredients found in non-prescription topical pain relief products are:

Counterirritants

Counterirritants include ingredients like menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil and methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen). These types of ingredients have a heating (capsicum or methyl salicylate) or cooling effect (menthol). They work by distracting you from the pain by creating a different, milder sensation. The main advantage to counterirritants is that they work almost immediately on the pain, although the effects may not last very long. They work best for minor muscle and joint pain.

Products with Counterirritants – Biofreeze, Sombra Warm Therapy, Cryoderm, and Outback Pain Relief

Salicylates

Salicylates are a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. The anti-inflammatory properties are great for reducing pain and inflammation in conditions like arthritis. Salicylates are same pain relieving ingredient that you would find in aspirin. They work by blocking the transmission of nerve impulses when the cream is absorbed into the skin. Creams with salicylates work well for pain in joints close to the skin, areas like fingers, knees, and elbows.

If you are allergic to aspirin or taking blood thinners, you should consult with your doctor before using any products that contain salicylates.

Products with salicylates: Aspercreme and Sportscreme

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is a natural, odor-free element found in hot chili peppers. It works as a counterirritant, creating a burning sensation and blocking the skin’s pain receptors. Creams with capsaicin tend to work well for arthritis in joints. Users may have to apply them for a few weeks multiple times a day before you feel consistent pain relief.

Products with Capsaicin : Soothanol X2, Capzasin, Lakota and Zostrix

Arnica

The Arnica plant has been used as a pain reliever to help reduce inflammation for hundreds of years. You can use creams or rubs that contain arnica for sore muscles, aching joints, injuries and to help with inflammation. They work best if used over a period of time.

Products with Arnica -Topricin, Penetrex, and Boiron Arnicare

 

Benefits

Overall the benefits of using a topical cream vastly outweigh the cons, with the caveat that you are able to find one that works for you. Creams and gels have the advantage that are able to provide fast, effective relief when you are in pain. You can also target the cream to where exactly the pain is occuring. They are safer than pills to use because there are not many serious side effects associated with topical pain relievers. They can also be more affordable than prescription medication.

Reviews:

Top Pick #1

Penetrex Pain Relief Medication

PROS:

  • Isn’t greasy
  • Works quickly
  • Small amount of cream is enough to ease the pain
  • Pleasant scent
  • Absorbs well

CONS:

  • Slightly expensive for the size of container

 

Bottom Line:

Penetrex is a very popular option for pain relief. It requires repeated applications over a period of time (10 days plus) before you will begin to feel relief, so if you need immediate relief there are probably better options for you. Many users report that when used over time Penetrex can help provide a more permanent pain relief than other products. The scent of the Penetrex is very mild and it absorbs into the skin very quickly. Since it is little bit pricey it may only be a good option if you are treating a smaller area. If you find that it doesn’t work for you, you can return it for a full refund.

What reviewers love:

Many users find that Penetrex is very effective in relieving their pain. It doesn’t use heat or cooling effects and the texture is light and absorbs very quickly so you don’t have to worry about it being greasy and staining your clothes. The scent is also not very strong you can use it liberally without being overwhelmed by odor.

Ingredients: Water (Aqua), Arnica Montana Flower Extract, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Glycerin, Glyceryl Stearate, PEG-100 Stearate, Cetyl Esters, Steareth-20, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM/DMSO2), Glucosamine Sulfate, Ethoxydiglycol, Methyl Gluceth-20, Cetyl Myristoleate, Pentylene Glycol (and) Sea Whip Extract, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter), Boswellia Serrata (Frankincense) Oil, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Cinnamomum Camphora (Camphor), Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Dipotassium Glycyrrhizinate, Dimethicone, Ammonium Acryloyl-Dimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Phenoxyethanol, DMDM Hydantoin, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate

Penetrex.com | Amazon

Top Pick #2

Sombra Warm Therapy Natural Pain Relieving Gel

PROS:

  • Light creamy texture
  • Warming effect
  • Absorbs quickly
  • Doesn’t stain

CONS

  • Warming sensation can be quite strong if you use too much

Bottom Line:

If you are looking for immediate relief that will last for hours Sombra is a great option. It there are two types of Sombra: a warming version and a cooling version (Sombra Cool Therapy Natural Pain Relieving Gel). The warming gel works immediately to help ease aches and pains. If you do purchase the Sombra gel make sure you do a patch test on your skin before putting it on a large area, some users do find it to be very intense. Also make sure you wash your hands after applying and don’t get it anywhere near your eyes. Sombra is a good option if you need to do a large area because a little bit of the gel goes a long way, so the container should last a while.

What reviewers love:

Users love the effectiveness of the Sombra warming gel. Most users love the citrus and menthol scent, although it can be a little strong when first applied.

Ingredients: Active: Camphor 3%,Menthol 3%, Inactive: aloe vera, Capraicin, carboner, decyl polyglucose, deionized water, citrus extracts, rose water, etc.

Sombrausa.com | Amazon

Top Pick #3

Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel for Arthritis

PROS:

  • Colorless
  • Dries quickly and doesn’t stain clothes
  • Penetrates sore muscles with a long lasting cooling sensation
  • A little goes a long way

CONS:

  • The smell is a strong menthol odor that some users may not like

Bottom Line:

Biofreeze is another one of the most popular topical pain relievers. The active ingredient is menthol, so it gives an immediate cool sensation to sore muscles and aches. It is a good option for larger areas like the back and shoulders.

What reviewers love:

Users love that it is absorbed really quickly (although this makes it not a good option if you are looking for something for massage). It has a menthol, camphor and peppermint odor which a lot of users really like, although it may not be for everyone since it is quite strong when you first put it on, the odor does subside quickly one the gel is absorbed.

Ingredients: Active ingredients: Menthol USP 4%,nactive Ingredients: Camphor (for scent), carbomer, FD&C blue #1, FD&C yellow #5, Glycerine, Herbal Extract (ILEX Paraguariensis), Isopropyl Alcohol, Methylparaben, Propylene Glycol, Silicon Dioxide, Triethanolamine, Water

BioFreeze.com | Amazon

Top Pick #4

Boiron Arnicare Arnica Gel

PROS:

  • No scent
  • Absorbs quickly
  • Works really well to heal bruises
  • No heating or cooling effect

CONS:

  • A little pricey

Bottom Line:

If you are looking for an Arnica based gel the Boiron Arnicare Arnica Gel is a very popular option. It will help alleviate a lot of different types of pain and may help with healing sore muscles. It also works to heal bruises.
What reviewers love:

Users love that it doesn’t have a scent. It is also very popular with reviewers who don’t like to use counterirritants due to sensitive skin or just not enjoying the heat/cool effect of many other products. Many users find that it is soothing and does relieve their pain very quickly. It is a good product to include in an overall pain management system (along with other treatments).

Ingredients: Arnica montana 1X HPUS – 7% other ingredients: alcohol, carbomer, dimethicone copolyol, purified water, sodium hydroxide

Arnicare.com | Amazon

What ailments can topical creams rubs and gels help with?

Topical pain relief product may provide pain relief for a number of different types of conditions including:

  • Arthritis
  • Back Pain
  • Muscle Pain
  • Joint Pain
  • Plantar Fasciitis
  • Sciatica
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Tennis Elbow
  • Golf Elbow
  • Tendonitis
  • Bursitis
  • Neck Pain
  • Shoulder Pain
  • Hip Pain
  • Shin Splints
  • Neuropathy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Pain
  • Sports Injuries
  • Repetitive Strain Injuries

Safety Precautions

Read safety instructions and ingredient lists before using any of these types of products.

Wash your hands after applying the product; don’t touch your eye area with topical still on your hands.

Don’t use products more often than recommended as they can lead to allergic reactions.

Don’t use heating pads after you have applied a topical product as it may increase your risk of burns.

If your skin begins to burn or itch or the skin turns red, stop using the product immediately.

Don’t use any topical creams on areas with broken skin or an open wound.

Topical pain relief products are not intended to take the place of your prescription medication or medical treatment.

Individual who are taking blood thinners or are allergic to aspirin should ask their doctor before using pain relief creams that contain salicylates.

Bottom Line

If you are looking for different ways to help treat your pain, topical pain relievers are well worth considering. They work quickly, are inexpensive and are easily available at any drug store. You can get scented or unscented products, with cooling, heating or no effects. They can treat different types of pain and in some cases help with the healing process. The only major downside to topical pain relievers is that it may take some trial and error to find something that works for you, but when you do find the right product it can be incredibly helpful with your pain management.