Pain Relief Patches and Gels

There are a vari­ety of patch­es, creams and gels avail­able for those with back pain.

Do they work?  Have you used any?  Con­sid­er­ing which ones might work for you?

Here is an out­line of the sev­en dif­fer­ent kinds of top­i­cal back pain relief prod­ucts (six of them avail­able with­out a pre­scrip­tion), their mode of action, and the like­li­hood that they could work for you.

  1. Counterirritants

    Coun­terir­ri­tants are sub­stances such as men­thol, cam­phor, or win­ter­green oil that cre­ate a sting­ing, burn­ing, or “icy hot” sen­sa­tion.  The the­o­ry is that the burn­ing sen­sa­tion over­rides the nox­ious sig­nals going into your brain, thus alle­vi­at­ing pain.

    These prod­ucts are like­ly to be safe. (Though the FDA has recent­ly issued a warn­ing that some users have expe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant skin burns.  So if you use these prod­ucts – fol­low the label direc­tions!)

    You may get some skin red­den­ing, though it’s prob­a­bly just tem­po­rary.  Any relief you get is prob­a­bly tem­po­rary, too.

  2. Capsaicin

    Cap­saicin is the active ingre­di­ent that makes hot pep­pers hot.  If you rub it on your skin, it will pro­duce a burn­ing sen­sa­tion.  In some respects, this will work sim­i­lar­ly to the coun­terir­ri­tants described above.  But there’s more.

    Once cap­saicin is absorbed into the skin, the the­o­ry is that it inhibits the nerve trans­mit­ters that your body uses to sig­nal pain.  So its effect may be more sub­stan­tial than the effect of the coun­terir­ri­tants.

    Don’t expect pain relief right away; it might take a week or two for the ben­e­fits to kick in.

  3. Salicylates

    Sal­i­cy­late is the active ingre­di­ent in aspirin.  Aspirin is a proven anti-inflam­ma­to­ry and pain reliev­er, but it can chew up your stom­ach lin­ing.  As an alter­na­tive, you can find gels or patch­es con­tain­ing sal­i­cy­late so that it’s absorbed direct­ly into your skin.

    The advan­tage of using sal­i­cy­late-con­tain­ing cream is that you can get an effec­tive dose in the painful area with a far low­er sys­tem-wide load.  There’s some research that backs up this method.

  4. Herbs for Pain

    A num­ber of dif­fer­ent herbs are claimed to have pain-reliev­ing, mus­cle-relax­ing, or cir­cu­la­tion-boost­ing prop­er­ties.

    One exam­ple is com­frey root.  Researchers have shown that apply­ing com­frey-root to your low back affords rapid pain relief.

    Anoth­er herb, ilea, is also used in a num­ber of top­i­cal back-pain for­mu­las.

  5. Chinese Herbs for Pain

    A wide vari­ety of herbs are used top­i­cal­ly in tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine to address back pain.

    Chi­nese herbs are herbs, of course, but I’ve includ­ed them in a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry because the tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­ical under­stand­ing of their mech­a­nism of action is root­ed in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent med­ical world­view.

    The choice of herbs to be used depends on a tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­ical eval­u­a­tion of the nature of your prob­lem.

    Some of the herbs that might be sug­gest­ed include dip­sacus, eucom­mia, and pso­ralea.

  6. Homeopathic Preparations

    The under­ly­ing the­o­ry of home­opa­thy, that van­ish­ing­ly minute amounts of the right ingre­di­ents can spur your body toward health, is so sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly unlike­ly that I can’t rec­om­mend the use of a home­o­path­ic prod­uct.

    I’m all in favor of the “spur your body toward health” part of the phi­los­o­phy, but the “van­ish­ing­ly minute amount” ends up mean­ing that home­o­path­i­cal­ly-pre­pared reme­dies con­tain absolute­ly zero of the sup­pos­ed­ly active ingre­di­ent.  That strains my creduli­ty.

    Besides which, there is zero research evi­dence that home­o­path­ic treat­ment is effec­tive for any con­di­tion.

  7. Prescription Topicals

    Allo­path­ic physi­cians can pre­scribe pain patch­es con­tain­ing lido­caine, a cocaine ana­log that alle­vi­ates pain.



Deep­en Your Body of Knowl­edge

Com­frey root — apply it to your back



About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website,, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.

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2 Responses to Pain Relief Patches and Gels

  1. Harriet says:

    Did you delib­er­ate­ly leave out Lidoterm Patch­es? I’ve been using them and get­ting some relief.

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