Menthol is one of nature's most effective natural pain relievers, derived from the herbs peppermint, eucalyptus and pennyroyal. Menthol can be applied topically or taken orally. It has a long list of health benefits including help with gastrointestinal problems, pain, inflammation and congestion.
It's no wonder that ever major topical pain relief gel or cream uses menthol as one of their main ingredients.
If you have used menthol topically before you are familiar with it's cool, soothing pain relief to aching muscles. But what is menthol actually doing?
Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFTPain Relief Expert, Post Rehab Specialist, talks about the three ways menthol works:
"Menthol has a natural analgesic (pain reliever) attribute when used in lotion, gel, or cream form. As the lotion is applied, molecules called ligands attach themselves to receptors in your cell triggering a change. The menthol ligand attaches to the kappa Opioid receptor, which produces a numbing effect.
Another reason menthol works so well when you rub it on those aching muscles is because it triggers a process called vasodilation. Blood vessels in the area widen, increasing blood flow to the area and reducing the skin barrier function. As a result, other medicinal ingredients typically found in that lotion along with the menthol get to work faster while the increased blood flow itself bring nutrients necessary for cellular repair and carry away waste.
Finally, one of the biggest culprits behind muscle aches and pains is inflammation. The Latin word for inflammation is inflammare which means "to set on fire." Menthol brings a wonderful cooling sensation by stimulating thermoreceptors in the skin cells which help your body recognize temperature changes. Your skin doesn't actually change temperature. Instead, menthol causes a signal to be sent which your brain interprets as cold, relieving the uncomfortable heat of inflammation. That's why many first aid products use menthol for cooling in place of ice." (1)
Before applying be sure to read the ingredients and directions of the pain relief product. For the most part though, applying menthol is natural. Just like how we naturally rub the area we feel pain.
Apply a thin layer to the area you feel pain no more than 3-4 times a day. Wash hands immediately after applying so as to not get any in your eyes.
Menthol is not meant to go on open wounds or irritated skin. If you want a more in depth explanation on applying Menthol, WebMD breaks it down.
According the Harvard Medical School, "Menthol used in topical pain relievers is a harmless substance that causes a pleasing sensation that counteracts pain, but it doesn't influence the underlying cause of inflammation."
Menthol is likely a safe option for minor aches and pains, but if you're experiencing something more severe you should consult your doctor.