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Best pain relief gels and creams

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Rub-on pain relief gels are the go-to remedy for people who are targeting pain relief in localized areas, such as sore muscles or aching joints in the back and knees. They can be especially helpful in patients with arthritis.

They are also very useful for people who are unable to take oral medications such as painkiller tablets or solutions for whatever reason – you can't tolerate certain side effects, or it may interfere with your other health conditions or medications. This is because little of the gel's active ingredient is absorbed into the body. You can use them alongside tablets or instead of tablets on days when the pain is mild.

You can use pain relief gels as and when you need, and most are available to buy over-the-counter, so they are certainly worth trying instead of booking a doctor's appointment.

Doctor’s advice

What are anti-inflammatory gels good for?

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) gels are very effective in targeting pain and inflammation at the source, such as strains or sprains. The anti-inflammatories work by reducing the number of pain signals sent to the brain and suppress swelling.

Diclofenac gel (Voltaren) is the strongest anti-inflammatory gel available over-the-counter. It can be up to three times more effective than non-medicated gels; however, it can only be used for a fortnight without your doctor’s supervision.

Anti-inflammatory gels should not be used by anyone who has medication that interacts with the active ingredients. If you can’t take anti-inflammatories, there are also non-medicated rub-on gel alternatives.

When should I try a heat gel?

Heat gels work by improving blood flow to an injured area, increasing oxygen and nutrients to help aid healing and restore movement. This mechanism works perfectly for common tight areas such as back pain. It's worth noting that they do contain active ingredients, so you must be careful not to overuse them.

Back pain is very common and can affect the entire body by reducing movement, making day-to-day activities extremely difficult. A heat gel will help make the area more mobile and less sore, so you can get back on your feet and resume your usual daily activities.

Heat gels contain aspirin-based ingredients and therefore should not be used by anyone who cannot take aspirin or takes medication that interacts with NSAIDs.

It is important to know when to use heat or cooling.

What do cooling gels target?

When an injury occurs, the surrounding soft tissue often bruises and becomes inflamed. Cooling gels work by causing the blood vessels to constrict. This minimizes damage by reducing inflammation and blood flow, which aids recovery. The pain relief works through two methods: reducing the skin temperature and thereby numbing the nerves, and they also contain an active ingredient.

The earlier you apply the cooling gel, the more effective it is. Therefore the cooling gel should be applied as soon as possible after the pain and swelling from the injury is noticed. Ideally, the treatment should continue until the swelling has stopped, which is usually about three days.

Cooling gels may often contain aspirin-based ingredients and therefore should not be used by anyone who cannot take aspirin or takes medication that interacts with NSAIDs. Alternatively, Biofreeze is a cooling pain relief gel that is NSAID-free.

NSAID-free gels: The best of the rest

Currently, there are several products that are NSAID-free. Some more natural ingredients have been used for hundreds of years before anti-inflammatories were discovered. They aim to desensitize nerves to reduce pain signals from firing. Menthol-containing gels produce a cooling sensation that distracts and reduces the sensation of pain.

Similarly, capsaicin, the fiery substance in a chili plant, produces an intense sensation of heat around an area, desensitizing the nerves and thereby reducing pain. These gels are suitable for any localized pain; however, they are more effective than most of the other gels for nerve pain (i.e., shooting sharp pains).

One of the more recent drug-free gels which have become available is specifically targeted for joints. FlexiSEQ contains a special formulation that hydrates the area around the joints, lubricating any damaged cartilage. FlexiSEQ's unique drug-free action targets joint pain, stiffness and improves joint mobility.

Magnesium may have a pain-relieving effect and is available as oral supplements, bath salts, or as a spray-on, such as BetterYou Magnesium Oil Joint Spray, which claims to provide relief for joint discomfort, muscle cramps, and stiffness, and it also contains menthol to cool the area.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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