Please select the country or location you would like to see content from.
country picker icon
treatment icon


Pain relief cream

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 26.01.2023 | 4 min read

Rub-on pain relief creams are the go-to remedy for people who are targeting pain relief in localised areas, such as sore muscles or aching joints int he 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 formulations such as tablets or solutions for whatever reason – you can't tolerate certain side effects or you have other health conditions or medications that mean you are unable to take painkiller tablets. This is because little of their active ingredient is absorbed into the body. You can use them alongside tablets or instead of tablets on the days where pain is mild.

You can use pain relief creams 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.

What are anti-inflammatory creams good for?

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) creams 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 suppresses swelling. Ibuprofen gel or cream is a good place to start if are still experiencing some pain and swelling, having tried paracetamol. The cream comes in two strengths. However, the higher strength is applied less often so for both strengths the same amount of drug reaches the area per day.

If the swelling and pain is more severe, then diclofenac (Voltarol) cream is more fitting. Diclofenac cream is the strongest anti-inflammatory cream available over-the-counter. Similarly to ibuprofen, it comes in two strengths but the higher strength can’t be applied as often. Voltarol cream can be up to three times more effective than non-medicated creams however can only be used for a fortnight without your doctor’s supervision.

Anti-inflammatory creams 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 cream alternatives.

When should I try a heat cream?

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

What do cooling creams target?

When an injury occurs, the surrounding soft tissue often bruises and becomes inflamed. Cooling creams work by causing the blood vessels to constrict. This minimises 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, such as an NSAID.

The earlier you apply the cooling cream, the more effective it is, therefore the cooling cream 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 creams do often contain aspirin-based ingredients and therefore should not be used by anyone who cannot take aspirin or have medication that interacts with NSAIDs. Alternatively, Biofreeze is a cooling pain relief cream that is NSAID-free.

NSAID-free creams: The best of the rest

Currently there are limited products that are NSAID-free, however, some more natural ingredients have been used for hundreds of years before anti-inflammatories were discovered. They aim to desensitise nerves to dampen down pain signals firing. Menthol-containing creams produce a cooling sensation that distracts and dampens down the sensation of pain.

Similarly, capsaicin, the fiery substance in a chilli plant, produces an intense sensation of heat around an area, desensitising the nerves and thereby reducing pain. Capsaicin cream is a prescription-only medication. These creams are suitable for any localized pain, however, they are more effective than most of the other creams for nerve pain i.e. shooting sharp pains.

One of the more recent drug-free creams which has come around 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.

Was this helpful?

Was this helpful?

Newsletter icon
Subscribe to our Newsletter
to get monthly notified about our latest health and wellness topics.
By clicking Subscribe, I agree to the Healthwords Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of the newsletter subscription at any time.