What Is a Topical Analgesic?

Article Details
  • Written By: Rebecca Harkin
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 05 February 2020
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article
Free Widgets for your Site/Blog
NYC subway riders can submit a “delay verification” request if public transit issues make them late for work.  more...

February 21 ,  1972 :  Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing.  more...

A topical analgesic can come as a cream, gel, lotion, spray, or patch and is applied to the skin to provide temporary relief from the discomfort of muscle aches, arthritis, shingles, or minor medical procedures. Most topical analgesics work by causing the painful area to flush with blood, blocking the nerve signals and numbing the painful area, or reducing inflammation and pain. The localized action of topical analgesics produces fast pain relief with minimal side effects.

Analgesics can be superficially applied to the skin as creams, gels, lotions, sprays, or patches to temporarily relieve pain. The mode of action for these pain relievers can be as rubefacients, anesthetics, or by blocking prostaglandin production. Rubefacients, such as capsaicin, produce pain relief by opening the blood capillaries in the injured area, flushing the area with blood, and producing a soothing sensation. Anesthetics, such as benzocaine, work to block the propagation of the pain along the nerve endings, numbing the area. These analgesics containing methyl salicylate or non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as diclofenac or ibuprofen, suppress pain by blocking the enzymes involved in the production of prostaglandins, which signal inflammation and cause pain.


The primary use of an analgesic is to relieve the pain and swelling associated with arthritis as well as muscle aches and pains caused by sports injuries or physical work. In some cases, these topical pain suppressors are used to control pain during minor procedures, such as injections of novocaine to the gum during a dental procedure. An analgesic on the skin can also be used to relieve the pain associated with shingles.

One benefit of topical pain relievers is that they can be applied directly to the site of the pain, so there is minimal systemic distribution of the pain reliever throughout the body. This localized action minimizes the side effects of the drugs in topical pain relievers. In addition the pain relieving action of the drugs in these analgesics, it works faster than most oral forms because it is applied directly onto the painful area and does not need to be digested and transported around the body.

There are a few downsides of topical pain reliever use. The pain relief from topical analgesics is typically short-term and often does not last as long as oral drugs. Due to the ingredients, many of these have a very strong and distinct odor. A topical analgesic also cannot be applied to or near open wounds or sores or an infection may result and the drug could unintentionally enter the blood stream.


You might also Like


Discuss this Article

Post 2

If I'm gong to use topical analgesic creams for pain relief, I prefer to use the kind with a topical anesthetic. Sometimes I'll get some really painful itchy spots that just won't go away. Ordinarily, I hate putting greasy feeling lotions on my skin, but topical analgesics for a rash are an exception.

I have been known to rub some analgesic medications with an NSAID to help ease my knee pain, too. The kind with the capzasin sometimes make it feel worse instead of better.

Post 1

I warn people about using those topical analgesics like capzasin that generate heat after my experience last year. I strained some lower back muscles lifting a car battery, so I decided to lie down for a while and rest. My lower back felt very tight, so I sent my wife to the store to buy the strongest topical analgesic cream she could find. I can't remember the brand name, but the cream she brought home contained a lot of capzasin.

I rubbed that cream on my lower back and five minutes later I felt like I had a chemical burn. The pain was intense. I've used other heat treatments over the years, but this was way too much. I tell people now to make sure they only get the kind of analgesic cream that will bring them relief. More heat doesn't necessarily mean more pain relief.

Post your comments

Post Anonymously


forgot password?