Will a sports (analgesic) cream fix my painful knee?

October 16, 2020

We get asked this question a lot in the clinic and the answer is not a simple yes or no.  Yearly sales of pain-relieving creams and gels are over a quarter of a billion dollars in North America.  The TV and social media advertisements will have you believe that they get help decrease pain brought on by arthritis, muscle and joint injuries and overuse.  Some feel hot, some feel cold, some smell bad and others “kinda “smell good (subject to individual preference of course).  I’m not sure if any of the companies have ever used the tag line “if it smells this bad it’s got to work” but I’m sure some of us have had that thought go through our minds as we are using it. 

The research remains inconclusive and there are no gold standard studies proving that they work.  Some suggest the feeling causes a counter irritant (you feel the burning or tingling instead of your normal pain) and others conclude that the relief is a placebo affect (you believe it works so you brain shuts the pain message off… at least for a while).  

Other than skin irritation and potential allergic reactions there does not seem to be any harm in using most products but it’s always a good idea to check with your GP or pharmacist to insure the ingredients do not negatively interact with a medication you are taking (some of the rubs have a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug  NSAID as an active ingredient).  Another active ingredient found in a lot of the “hot” rubs is capsaicin which is the chemical that makes chilli peppers hot.  

Analgesic creams/gels help with short term pain relief for some people but to truly fix the problem causing the pain you should consult a physiotherapist to help identify the source and determine a viable plan of care.  

Earle Burrows, PT

Earle is a physiotherapist and CEO at the Human Performance Centre. You can contact him at 738-8299.