Do topical creams for arthritis work?

Osteoarthritis affects millions of adults in the United States alone. It can cause pain and limit your ability to work, play sports or exercise the way you want. Orthopedic surgeons use many different treatments for osteoarthritis, including oral medications, injections, braces, and surgery. ThisMan with thumb pain article discusses another type of treatment – topical anti-inflammatory medications.

What are topical anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)?

Most anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, are given orally, meaning patients take them by mouth. There are topical forms of some of these medications. These are pain-relieving creams and gels used mainly to decrease pain from osteoarthritis. They contain NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or diclofenac, that can be rubbed through the skin into a joint. Some forms require a prescription from a physician.

Are topical anti-inflammatory medications effective?

Some studies show a benefit for some patients with osteoarthritis pain of the knees, ankles, hands, wrists, and elbows, while others show less benefit. It is difficult to determine if they are more effective than oral medications.

What are the benefits of these medications?

Oral NSAIDs present the risk of gastrointestinal side effects, like heartburn or even ulcers. They have more serious risks as well despite the fact that they are sold over the counter. Topical medications are absorbed through the skin, so much less enters the patient’s bloodstream.

Do these medications have risks?

While less of the anti-inflammatory medication is absorbed into the bloodstream, these medications can still theoretically have similar side effects as oral NSAIDs, such as stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, heart attacks and strokes. They are thought to rarely cause liver problems as well. People with severe allergies to oral NSAIDs should not apply topical forms.

As with all of the articles on my website, I am not offering specific medical advice in this article. If you have osteoarthritis, consider discussing the problem with your doctor or an orthopedic surgeon. The doctor or surgeon can discuss all of the treatment options, including topical anti-inflammatory medications.

Have you tried these topical creams and gels for knee pain or arthritis? Did they help you? Please share your experience below!

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david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

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