Oral vs. Topical: What You Need to Know About These Pain Relievers

Oral vs. Topical: What You Need to Know About These Pain Relievers

October 19, 2018

Muscle soreness or joint pain deserves a direct approach to relief.

Got pain? Pop a pill. It’s how we tend to take care of the situation. Medicine isn’t effective unless it gets inside you, so you’ve got to swallow it, right?

Some of the most powerful pain relievers you can get without a doctor’s prescription come in the form of capsules or pills that you swallow, but there’s a problem. What if you just want to hit some muscle pain in your left shoulder? Too bad. After you ingest a pain reliever, your body’s going to distribute it everywhere. There’s no way to direct it only where you want it. When you want specific pain relief – especially the sort related to muscle or joint pain – bypass the pills. Apply a topical pain reliever.

Right where it hurts

It was an intense workout. Now you’re feeling it in specific muscle groups. If you reach for an oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, it has plans for your whole body. It would help with a headache – which you don’t have. It would even reduce a fever, but you don’t have one of those, either.

What you do have is a localized pain in a muscle group or joint, caused by hormones called prostaglandins, which the body creates at the site of tissue damage or infection. Prostaglandins produce inflammation, which in turn causes pain. You actually want it, but just not too much. Your body releases prostaglandins to generate inflammation because that’s what marshals the natural healing processes. Instead of popping a pill, wouldn’t you rather apply for pain relief directly – and only – to what’s sore?

Topical pain relievers will do just that. You apply it to the skin directly above where you experience pain. Topical pain relievers can be effective at relieving joint and muscle pain, and they can also help reduce inflammation.

Topical pain relievers can work by distributing an anesthetic. If you’ve ever used a spray or gel to soothe the sting of a sunburn, you’ve felt this effect. Other types of topical pain relievers can distribute an anti-inflammatory medication or antihistamine to tame the discomfort of insect bites or a skin rash.

Some of the most effective topical pain relievers take a different approach and use what’s known as counterirritants. The National Institutes of Health explains it by citing the gate control theory of pain, which suggests that the cooling or heating effects of topical pain relievers block the pain signals traveling from areas of soreness back to your brain.

The cooling is often created by natural substances such as menthol or camphor. Other topical pain relievers use capsaicin – an ingredient that puts the heat in chili peppers. This natural approach offers the benefit of getting quick pain relief precisely where you want it, without having to ingest any drugs.

The downside of oral pain relievers

NSAIDs like ibuprofen block the production of prostaglandins. That’ll happen soon after you ingest ibuprofen, and the pain will subside. That’s the good news.

The bad news? You took something that has an impact on your whole body, even though you really just wanted pain relief in a specific area. Plus, ibuprofen, like many oral pain relievers, has side effects and can interfere with other medications.

Even though it was as easy as opening the bottle, shaking out a couple pills, and downing them with a glass of water – it’s like spending hours on a full-body workout when all you needed were a few quick reps on the leg press. Overkill.

Get pain relief where you need it, without all the side effects. The direct application of a topical pain reliever also allows you to apply only as much as you need to get relief. It’s a smarter choice – especially for dealing with specific pain in muscle groups or joints. Discover how the addition of copper is revolutionizing topical pain relievers.

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