As a physio, I’m asked at least once per day whether creams or ointments can help reduce pain. Most of you reading have probably tried at least one of the creams listed in the title.
We get it!
Creams are cheap, easy to use and sometimes even smell pretty good! We are not surprised that they are a popular option for our clients in the clinic. Everyone has their own experience with some type of topical cream and many of my clients find they experience great pain relief from using them.
So what does the research say? Is there any evidence for using these creams when you have osteoarthritis?
I get asked most about Topical Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAID’s). This is just a fancy name for gels such as voltaren, nurofen or feldene. As the name suggests, these creams have an active anti-inflammatory ingredient. Studies for knee and hand osteoarthritis show that these gels can produce results similar to NSAIDs taken in tablet form (See the study here). This is an encouraging results for these products, and part of why physios (in general) agree with using creams to help manage pain in the early stages of treatment.
There are however, potential side effects of using these gels and they should be ceased if any problems are noticed. Typically, these occur close to where you applied the cream, and can include a rash, burning or itching. Whilst topical NSAIDs are safer than oral tablets, there is still a substantial proportion of older adults who experience systemic or gastrointestinal/ stomach issues with regular use of these creams. So it’s important you also consult with your Doctor or Pharmacist before using such a product, especially if you intend to do so regularly.
There was also an interesting article last year about Voltaren “Osteo-gel” which actually has the same formulation as their regular gel and costing on average 33% more. A healthy reminder to not always believe what you read on packaging! They have since had to re-name/ label that product after the investigation- see the story here.
So topical NSAIDs may be a useful adjunct for those with osteoarthritis- but what about the other creams? Many of the other creams have limited evidence to suggest they are helpful for osteoarthritis- yet many of my clients swear by certain topical creams and gels.
Some of these include:
- Deep heat
- Pain away
- Sore, Stiff and Sorry
- Arnica variations
- Magnesium gels/ creams
From my perspective I am happy for clients to use these, granted they are having no negative side effects. If these creams help my patients deal with their pain day to day and function at a higher level I’m more than happy for them to continue with their use!
As long as you and my patients realise that these creams aren’t the magic cure- and you will need to make changes and put in your own hard work to see long lasting effects. This may mean trying to lose a few kilos through diet changes and moving more during the day. Or starting on an exercise program to improve the strength of the surrounding muscles, overall fitness levels and joint flexibility. In the bigger picture exercise and weight loss are the most supported management options for Osteoarthritis!
Comment below if you've found topical creams helpful for managing your osteoarthritis!
And click through to see where topical creams sit on the whole Osteoarthritis checklist!