Pain Relieving Creams & Gels For Muscles & Joints


As a doctor I’ve tried, recommended and prescribed many pain-relieving creams and gels to treat painful joints, backache, muscle soreness and sprained ligaments. Medical guidelines even recommend that doctors prescribe topical creams and gels to treat mild to moderate joint pain. These are often just as effective as oral painkillers, but with much less risk of side effects.

You probably learned as a child that ‘rubbing it better’ quickly reduces the pain of knocks and sprains. The physical action of massaging in the treatment helps to warm the area and increases blood flow. This allows the active ingredients to sink into the skin more readily, where their analgesic action soothes discomfort as well as hastening healing. Rubbing also stimulates nerve endings and sends signals to the brain which overwhelm those from pain receptors, so your perception of discomfort is reduced. This same concept makes topical, rub-in creams and gels highly effective for treating painful joints and sport injuries, and I’ve reviewed what I believe are the best products below.

Which are the best creams for relieving pain in muscles and joints?

Different creams and gels combine different pain-relieving ingredients for a greater, synergistic effect. The most effective natural ingredients are glucosamine, chondroitin, celadrin, comfrey root, capsicum and Green-lipped mussel extracts.

FirstaidGlucosamine gel for pain

Glucosamine provides building blocks for the production of synovial fluid (which oils mobile joints), cartilage (which cushions bones), damps down inflammation and stimulates tissue repair. A version known as n-acetyl glucosamine is small enough to sink into skin and penetrate underlying tissues when applied as a gel. Topical glucosamine can significantly reduce the pain of knee osteoarthritis within 4 weeks. One study involving a glucosamine cream found that 100% of those with arthritis of the shoulder gained benefit, 75% of those with arthritis of the ankle, wrist or elbow and 58% of those with knee osteoarthritis.

Chondroitin cream for pain

Chondroitin has a complementary action to glucosamine and the two are often combined. A study involving 63 people with osteoarthritis of the knee showed that applying a cream containing both glucosamine and chondroitin produced greater pain reduction than a placebo cream. After 4 weeks, the active cream was 20% more effective, and after 8 weeks, it was 80% more effective than the dummy cream.

Celadrin cream for pain

Celadrin is a blend of waxy, cetylated fatty acids (CFAs) that are laid down in cell membranes to improve their flexibility and resilience. It also has an anti-inflammatory, pain-killing action. Cetylated fatty acids occur naturally in sperm whale oil and in a strain of mice renowned for their immunity against arthritis, but the CFAs used in health products are derived from monounsaturated fats found in olive oil. Research shows that applying celadrin cream to arthritic knees can reduce pain and improve the range of movement, making it easier to climb up and down stairs. Celadrin cream is also helpful for muscle pain associated with pressure on trigger points.

MSM cream for pain

MSM (methyl-sulfonyl-methane) is a naturally rich source of sulphur which is a vital constituent of connective tissues and structural proteins. It is essential for the repair of muscles, joints and ligaments and has a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. It is often combined with glucosamine and chondroitin.

Comfrey ointment 

Injured

Comfrey root has a long history of traditional use to heal wounds and fractures when applied as a poultice, and was commonly known as ‘knit bone’. Modern research shows that comfrey contains two main active ingredients: allantoin which promotes tissue regeneration, and rosmarinic acid which damps down inflammation and reduces pain. Comfrey root cream is a popular and effective treatment for joint pain, sprains and strains.

A study involving 120 people with acute upper or lower back pain showed that rubbing in comfrey cream, three times a day for 4 to 6 days, reduced pain intensity by 95%, compared with just 38% reduction for inactive ‘placebo’ cream. Comfrey works quickly, providing good pain relief within an hour of application. In fact, researchers have found that comfrey cream is more effective than a prescribed, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory treatment (diclofenac gel) for treating ankle sprains.

Capsicum cream

Capsicum is an extract from chilli pepper which reduces pain by continuously stimulating nerve endings in the skin at a very low-level. This depletes nerve endings of neurotransmitter chemicals so they become less sensitive and pass on fewer pain messages to the brain. Those messages that are passed on tend to get screened out as they brain shuts off distracting, low-level irritation. Ingredients that do this are known as ‘counterirritants’. These effects also reduce sensation from underlying painful joints.

Green-lipped mussel gel

Green-lipped mussel extracts were first investigated as a pain-relieving ingredient when it was noticed that Maori living in coastal regions suffered less arthritis symptoms than those living inland. Those who regularly consumed these delicious, green-lipped mussels tended to remain free of joint problems. Freeze-dried extracts of raw New Zealand green-lipped mussels are now known to contain unique omega-3 fatty acids which damp down inflammation in a similar way to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce joint pain and swelling.

Essential oils for pain

Menthol, Levomenthol, Eucalyptus, Camphor and Oil of Wintergreen are often added to topical joint treatments. These are absorbed into the skin to produce a cooling or warming sensation and also act as counter-irritants. Wintergreen is also a rich source of methyl salicylate, a natural anti-inflammatory painkiller related to aspirin.

Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) in pain gels

NSAID gels were originally only available on prescription and, as a GP, I prescribed a lot of these before they were available for self purchase. They are now widely available and much better for your health than taking oral medicines.

Topical NSAIDs are highly effective for treating muscle and joint aches and pains and, in fact, direct comparison of topical NSAID with an oral NSAID did not show any difference in efficacy.

Data from 34 studies, involving over 7,600 people, suggests that topical diclofenac is the most effective form of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller for applying to the skin to treat osteoarthritis joint pain.

Diclofenac is found in Voltarol Pain-eze Emulgel and voltarol Thermal Patch.

Tips for using pain cream and gel

Using a rub-in treatment can reduce the need for oral pain medication, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen tablets.

Don’t apply topical creams or gels to broken skin or they may sting like fury.

If you have eczema or other hand problems, wear a latex glove when applying your joint cream or gel or ask a close friend or relative to apply it for you.

For best results, apply a topical joint cream or gel after a warm bath or shower, or after exercise when you are still glowing, as this helps the treatment sink in more quickly.

Allergic reactions are uncommon, but on first use only apply a small amount to a clean, healthy area of skin and gently rub in until absorbed. Wait a while to test how you respond to the ingredients before using more. If skin redness, irritation or itching occurs, wash off and seek medical advice.

WashedWash your hands immediately after applying the treatment.

Don’t touch or rub your eyes while you have topical cream on your hands.

Wearing a neoprene joint wrap after applying the treatment will keep the area warm and may boost its effectiveness (NB check product leaflet first in case the manufacturer does not advise this).

Follow the directions on the package as some products may need to be used at regular intervals, while others may be used as and when necessary.

Do not use any topical treatments if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, without seeking advice from a pharmacist or doctor.

 

 

Best glucosamine gel for pain

Glucosamine Joint Complex Gel has a non-sticky formulation that includes Aloe vera, plus Devil’s Claw and MSM for an additional anti-inflammatory action.

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Extra Strength Glucosamine Gold Gel has  added Indian Frankincense and Horse Chestnut  to promote healing.

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triple strength cream

Natures Plus Advanced Therapeutics Triple Strength cream is non-greasy and penetrates quickly to relieve pain. It contains glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM plus celadrin and black cherry for additional anti-inflammatory actions.

View current offers on Amazon.co.uk or on Amazon.com

A version without Celadrin and black cherry is also available in the US with a typical price from Amazon.com. 

Best celadrin cream for pain

Celedrin Accelerator Balm contains anti-inflammatory cetylated fatty acids plus menthol in a sweet almond oil base that is lovely to use.

It sinks in quickly to relieve muscle and joint aches and pains. Some have found it helpful for relieving gout, too.

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In the US, a similar product, Dr Shepard’s Pain Therapy Relief Cream also includes MSM.

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Best comfrey ointment for pain

Comfrey Ointment remains a popular treatment for a variety of muscle, joint and back aches and pains, because it works. Many original brands, developed by traditional medical herbalists are still going strong.

Remedinature Comfrey Ointment is a lovely best seller with hundreds of positive reviews. It contains just comfrey leaf extracts and beeswax.

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Dr Christopher’s Comfrey Ointment is another popular product that contains organic comfrey leaf extracts in a beeswax and extra virgin olive oil base (refrigerate after opening).

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Best New Zealand green-lipped mussel gel for pain

Pernaton is the only gel that contains 100% Perna green-lipped mussel extracts sourced using a patented, freeze-drying process without heat, chemicals or solvents (which would inactivate the active ingredients). The non-greasy gel is quickly absorbed and includes additional menthol, pine needle and other essential oils for a rapid cooling, analgesic action. Pernaton Gel improves circulation and relaxes stiff, aching muscles and joints.

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Best non-steroidal anti-inflammatory gel for pain

In both the UK and the US you can obtain NSAID gels from a pharmacy. Research shows that diclofenac is one of the most effective topical NSAIDs for relieving musle and joint pain and inflammation. 

In the UK Voltarol Pain-eze Emulgel which contains diclofenac is available on-line.

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Have you used any rub-in painkilling creams, ointments or gels and found them helpful? If so, what symptoms did they relieve? How long did they take to work for you?

If you have any questions or comments, please use the form below and I’ll get back to you.

Click here to read my review of LQ Liquid Health Joint Care.

Click here to read my review of the best non-prescription oral pain killers.

Click here to read my post on the 9 Best Supplements For Knee Pain.

Click here to read about methods of pain relief for tennis elbow.

Image credit: geralt/pixabay




About Dr Sarah Brewer

Dr Sarah Brewer qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a master's degree in nutritional medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a licensed Medical Doctor, a Registered Nutritionist and a Registered Nutritional Therapist. She is an award winning author of over 60 popular self-help books and set up this site to showcase all that is good in the world of self-help.


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21 thoughts on “Pain Relieving Creams & Gels For Muscles & Joints

  • ANSHREA MORANT

    Hello Everyone,

    I am in my mid 50’s and was recently diagnosed with arthritis in both my knees. My left knee was the absolute worse. Seems squats and lunges are the worst for arthritic knees and my worst pain followed these exercises. Since then I have gotten a personal trainer so that I won’t hurt myself trying to workout. Anyway, I am a 5k runner and I want to continue. But let me tell you guys about the topical regimen that I am using that I employed just short of going to get a cortisone injection. Magnesium Oil, MSM lotion and organic silica gel. I got all of these products from an on-line source of organic foods, products and such. I absolutely love their products and these 3 products have made my knee feel like I never was diagnosed with arthritis, and I’ve been following this morning and night application of the 3 products for a little over two weeks now. Let me tell you, I couldn’t sleep at night because of the pain. Now it’s the difference between night and day. I hope this helps someone

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Hi Peggy, It’s not a treatment with which I am familiar. Looking at the incredients, Blue Ice contains alcohol which will cool by evaporating, an aspirin-like substance (methyl salicylate), magnesium (muscle relaxant) and capsicum which has a pain killing action by depleting nerve endings of nerve chemicals. It looks like it is effective for muscle and joint pain and has good reviews but I can’t speak from personal experience. Hope that helps, Sarah B

      • Pauline

        I am 63 with osteoarthritis of my knee. I have struggled with pain relief and steroid injection hasn’t helped now waiting for new knee but need to control pain. I have just been recommended emu oil. I went to holland and Barrett and found Blue ease gel that has emu oil, capsicum and MSN amongst its ingredients. It does help the pain but skin burns (may have put too much on) how much will I need for a knee and will the burning sensation go away I have tried capsicum cream on prescription and that advised that burning sensation improves in a couple of weeks. From reading your advise re capsicum am I right in thinking that the burning sensation distracts the brain from the joint pain thanks

        • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

          Hi Pauline, sorry to hear about your knee. Yes, capsaicin/capsicum cause stimulation of nerves endings so their chemicals are depleted and they reduce the level of pain messages they send on. The brain also naturally dismisses persistent signals. Some people do find it irritating, however, but better than the traditional treatments that mimic this action -bee stings and nettles! Best wishes, Sarah B

  • ANSHREA MORANT

    Are you familiar with Dr. Janet’s glucosamine cream, and if so, how would you rate it?
    Thank you for your time and attention

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Hi Anshrea, it’s not a product with which I am familiar – have you found it helpful? Best wishes, Sarah B

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Hi Sahar, Creams and gels for muscle and joint pain are widely available in pharmacies, and from Amazon – just click on my links 🙂

  • Kenneth Hughes

    Thank you for providing a list with creams that aren’t simply analgesic! Most lists are just full of creams that provide analgesic properties by blocking pain receptors. It doesn’t really help your body repair from damage or strain. I use a cell-regenerative, anti-inflammatory cream with analgesics and its completely natural. It has the MSM and Arnica. I apply it before I work out and after to help nurture and heal my muscles & joints as well provide pain relief. This way I recover faster and get into the gym quicker knowing my body is supported and I am not just exasperating a problem.

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Hi Amanda, Thanks for your question. I was planning a post on tennis elbow so have bumped it to the top of my list for you here. As a fellow sufferer, here’s what solved my bilateral tennis elbow extra fast. Hope it helps, Sarah B

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Hi Paul, This is not a condition I’m very familiar with. I’ve done a bit of research for you and found that most people will regain up to 70-90% of their original strength and functional levels within two years. The same reference suggests that ‘Specific pain medications used to treat PTS include opiates and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are usually used in combination. … After the acute phase, different medications such as gabapentin, carbamazepine, and amitryptiline may be used specifically to treat nerve pain.’ It’s possible that diclofenac gel will help the pain – this is the most effective topical NSAID available without prescription. Your doctor can prescribe other versions. Nerve pain is difficult to treat topically, although capsaicin cream (chilli extract) is prescribed to treat other forms of nerve pain eg related to shingles. Physio will help the nerves to recover – a medical herbalist may be able to suggest herbal creams that might promote nerve regrowth. Hope that helps.

  • Andy

    This is great! My wife said she’s getting knee pain and you can hear some creaking sounds which scares me. I’m guessing the lubrication in her joints are worn out. I’ll get her to try some of these gels and possibly take some glucosamine supplements. Thanks for this info!

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Glad it was of help. Gels will let her target a single joint when pain flares up, while taking glucosamine supplements will help to provide a background anti-inflammatory pain relief body wide.

  • carl

    Dr Sarah,

    Thanks, your post is comprehensive in its breadth and its depth, yet easy for the ‘man in the street’ to understand.

    I have a question about pain relief gels for personal reasons. Although I am under the supervision of a specialist for my Ankylosing spondylitis, I have never been advised that I can use pain relief gels to counter the severe pain of an attack.

    Can you recommend a pain relief gel for this kind of illness?

    Thank you

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Topical gels have been shown to reduce the need for oral analgesics which is a good thing for reducing side effects.One trial found that topical capsaicin reduce pain more than placebo in people with AS, although it can cause burning sensations. Another trial used a gel form of a drug called tenoxicam (an NSAID) that suggested it might be helpful. Do ask your specialist if you can try something like voltarol – or a stronger version on prescription – and follow their individual advice. They may prefer you to have some oral anti-inflammatory on board to reduce inflammation throughout the body, however.

  • Ashley

    This was a very informative post. I hate taking pills so anything thing that can help with any pain that I’m experiencing that you can just add topical is the best in my opinion. It’s great that it’s also as good as oral pain killers. And also has fewer side effects which is also another great thing. I’ll have to tell my friend about this because she has bad knee pain, so this would help her out a lot.

    • Dr Sarah Brewer Post author

      Thanks Ashley. Hope your friend finds it helpful. I’ve just rubbed green-lipped mussel gel into my daughter’s football injury and it worked a treat!