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Topical Pain Relievers - What You Should Know

Proper Use of Topical Pain Relievers


Updated December 30, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Topical pain relievers are pain relievers that you apply directly to your skin, where they are absorbed for the purpose of easing joint pain. They come in different formulations, such as creams, gels and lotions. Some of the topical pain relievers are sold over-the-counter (without a prescription). However, you should still follow the directions and realize the limitations of these medications.

Slather It On?

Some people think a lot is better than a little -- especially when something is working. If that were true of topical pain relievers, the directions would indicate you should slather it on.

Not the case, though. While it varies for each medication, some topical pain relievers should be used no more than 3 or 4 times a day. Others limit the duration of use -- recommending that it be tried for no more than a week or two before you should call your doctor for further advice and direction.

For example, the maker of Voltaren gel has issued warnings about potential effects on the liver. That's why using the product according to directions is so important.

Besides the issue of side effects, using an excessive amount of topical medication is wasteful. There is no additional benefit derived from using an excessive amount.

Think Short-Term

Topical pain relievers are meant to help you manage joint pain short-term. They are not intended as a long-term solution. While they are effective for taming a flare -- in addition to your usual medication regimen -- the products are not intended to replace other medications you take on a regular basis.

Quick Tips When Using Topical Pain Relievers

For safe use of topical pain relievers, remember to:

  • Follow the directions on the product or product package.
  • Do not rub or touch your eyes before washing your hands.
  • Don't use topical pain relievers on broken or irritated skin.
  • Do not use topical pain relievers with either a heating pad or bandage.

If you are allergic to aspirin or take blood thinners, topical pain relievers that contain salicylates may not be a safe choice. Discuss with your doctor before using topical pain relievers.

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