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Pain relief patches

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Treatment for pain relief comes in many forms, not just tablets and capsules. Some pain relief patches offer targeted pain treatment directly where it's needed, while others deliver medication transdermally (absorbed through the skin) to achieve sustained pain relief. The effect is usually long-lasting, making it a preferred option in many cases. Let's look at the different types of pain relief patches available and the uses for each.

Doctor’s advice

Hot or cold patches

These pain relief patches are available over the counter from your local pharmacy or supermarket. These patches only provide pain relief to the area they are applied to.

Patches containing levomenthol or menthol provide a cooling sensation. These patches are best used to treat injury-related pains, usually within the first 48 hours after an injury. Blood flows to an injury, causing heat, pain and swelling, but the cooling sensation reduces this flow and soothes the injury. Deep Freeze Cold Patch is one example and provides relief for up to 3 hours, which is advised for use on the back, neck, shoulders, legs or feet.

In contrast, patches containing capsicum or capsaicin provide a warming sensation as this is the substance that makes chili peppers hot. The warmth acts similarly to a hot water bottle or warm bath to relax muscle or joint stiffness and increase movement. It also encourages blood flow to the area, bringing oxygen and nutrients to aid healing. These are best used for long-term muscular pain or stiffness, or joint pain such as arthritis.

Medicated patches

Some patches may contain methyl salicylate/salicylate, an anti-inflammatory medication related to aspirin that helps to relieve pain and inflammation caused by muscular pain and injury (should not be used in children under 16).

Deep Heat Pain Relief provides methyl salicylate alongside a warming sensation, with active ingredients of methyl salicylate, menthol and eucalyptus oil. It claims to provide pain relief for up to 8 hours and can be used on the back, hip, thigh, calf, arm, neck and shoulder.

TENS machine

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy is a drug-free method of pain relief where tiny electrical impulses are used to reduce pain signals in the body. Patches connected to a TENS machine are applied directly to the affected area's skin. A tingling sensation can be felt during the treatment, but it shouldn't feel painful. TENS provides short-term pain relief while in use but is not a cure for pain. TENS therapies are usually safe to use with no side effects but should be avoided in pregnant women, people with pacemakers, heart conditions or who have epilepsy. TENS therapy is a relatively new treatment still being studied for its effectiveness in clinical practice, but patient feedback is positive. A TENS machine can be bought without a doctor's recommendation but might be preferable for some.

Prescription patches

Prescription Anesthetic Patches

An anesthetic medication works to numb an area, and these can be applied as patches or plasters containing substances such as lidocaine. By altering the transmission of pain signals from nerves to the brain, these plasters can effectively treat neuropathic pain caused by damaged nerves. Examples include pain after shingles, known as post-herpetic neuralgia, sciatic nerve pain in your back or leg, or a prickling stabbing pain if your doctor thinks it will help. Some are only available on prescription in the US.

Prescription Opioid Patches

Opioid medicines are strong painkillers that may be prescribed by your doctor for pain management, depending on their assessment. These medicines are often controlled drugs, available as tablets or liquid to swallow, as injections, infusions via a syringe driver or patches. They carry a risk of addiction and are usually reserved for long-standing intractable pain that has not responded to other methods or in palliative care cases.

They can be very effective, but they commonly cause side effects. Pain relief patches aim to address some of these. Fentanyl and buprenorphine are two opioids available as skin patches. They are designed to release medicine gradually through the skin, and doses are given every few days.

Although they are applied directly to the skin, the medicine is absorbed into the blood and distributed around the body. The patches are effective at providing long-lasting and sustained pain relief.

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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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