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Osteoarthritis medications: topical analgesics for patient treatment

Topical analgesic osteoarthritis medications are an effective, safe means for patients to stay active and pain-free, and avoid some of the complications...

Topical analgesic osteoarthritis medications are an effective, safe means for patients to stay active and pain-free, and avoid some of the complications of oral medications

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), arthritis is one of the most common chronic pain conditions among Americans. More than 52 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis.1 Osteoarthritis is the most common, accounting for 28 million of all arthritis diagnoses. The condition is more prevalent among women (23.5%) than men (18.1%), and the need for osteoarthritis medications for these individuals will also increase with age.

The practical upshot of these numbers is that you will likely see a similar increase in the number of patients seeking your help in treating their osteoarthritis, simply based on the combined size of the boomer generation (those born between 1944-64) and Generation X (those born between 1965-83).

Many of these patients are still leading full, active lives and don’t want their arthritis to slow them down. Fortunately, topical analgesics are an effective, noninvasive treatment that can deliver pain relief with fewer side effects than pharmacological options.  

Osteoarthritis medications and oral consumption

Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory, chronic condition that will worsen over time. As the body ages, cartilage, which protects the joints at the point where bones meet, gradually wears away. This will result in pain, soreness, and stiffness at the affected joint.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to reverse this degenerative process, but symptoms can be managed with oral medications to improve mobility. However, these oral medications come with a variety of side effects, including:

  • liver toxicity
  • heartburn
  • stomach pain
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness2

How do topical analgesics work?

On the other hand, topical analgesics have a far better side effect profile than oral medications and can be used directly on the affected joint for fast relief. Topicals work best on joints near the surface of the skin, such as the hands, wrists, elbows, or knees.3

The main active ingredients in topical analgesics include salicylates, counterirritants, capsaicin, and anesthetics such as lidocaine.3 Salicylates help decrease pressure and pain in the joints by reducing inflammation. Counterirritants, such as menthol, camphor or eucalyptus oil, serve to to warm or cool the joint area. These counterirritants help distract the pain signals coming from the brain.

Capsaicin is the active ingredient that produces the heat in chili peppers. It works by directly blocking the skin’s pain receptors. Finally, topical anesthetics numb the affected joint to reduce the pain sensation. Some of these anesthetic analgesic osteoarthritis medications are available in patch form, which make them excellent for treating large surface areas, such as the back, for an extended period of time.3

Safety precautions

Many of the active ingredients in topical analgesics for treating arthritis can irritate the mucus membranes, so avoid touching the eyes, nose, or mouth after applying the analgesic. Washing the hands both before and after applying the analgesic is strongly recommended. Latex gloves may be a good way to avoid any accidental transference to the eyes, nose, or mouth. Likewise, the analgesic should not be applied to any area with broken or irritated skin.

Although osteoarthritis may be frustrating for your patients who are used to being active, there is no reason for them to resign themselves to a sedentary lifestyle. Topical analgesic osteoarthritis medications are an effective, safe means for them to stay active and pain-free.


  1. Barbour KE, Helmick CG, Boring MA, Brady TJ. Vital signs: Prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitation – United States, 2013–2015. Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report. 2017;66:246-253.
  2. Know your OA treatment options. Healthline. Accessed April 1, 2020.
  3. Arthritis pain: Treatments absorbed through your skin. Mayo Clinic. Updated July 2019. Accessed April 1, 2019.

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