What Makes Menthol and Camphor Such Great, Natural Pain Relievers?

It’s time to take another look at what irritation can accomplish.

There’s a reward for irritation – especially when it comes to relief from sore muscles or joint pain. Most of us just reach for a bottle of painkillers. Pop a couple with a glass of water and then wait for it to do its magic.

But what if there was a way for the magic to happen faster? What if you could focus the pain-relieving effects just where you wanted it? Bring it on. That’s the way topical pain relievers work. However, to get the relief, you’re going to have to take a different approach. A topical pain-relieving cream or roll-on uses what’s known as a counterirritant. The most common are menthol or camphor. Here’s how they help soothe joint and muscle pain.

Oysters and pearls

All it takes is a single grain of sand to produce the exquisite beauty of a pearl. Consider menthol and camphor as two irritants that help the body deal with pain in much the same way. Back in the mid-1960s, researchers Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall introduced a scientific model about pain called the gate control theory.

According to Melzack and Wall, our brains don’t receive pain signals directly from the areas of injured tissue. First, those signals have to be admitted through neurological gates in the spinal cord. If the pain signal doesn’t get admitted through a gate, the brain doesn’t receive it.

Those gates can be confused by other sensations. The gates might not let a pain signal through if they’re also receiving competing sensory signals from the tissues in that area. This “gate control” approach to pain relief uses counterirritants to basically block the gates from passing along muscle or joint pain – instead of passing along the sensation caused by menthol or camphor.


You know you’re in the presence of camphor by its smell. Camphor is extracted from the wood of the camphor laurel tree. Your nose is detecting the terpenoid produced from the extraction. You’re left with essential oil, which is known for its ability to cause irritation.

Applying camphor topically increases blood flow to the nearby tissues by irritating those tissues. In this case, it’s a beneficial irritation. Those pain gates report the warming sensation of the camphor rather than the pain produced by prostaglandins.

Camphor is FDA-approved for topical use as a painkiller. It’s readily absorbed by the skin. Camphor can generate both cooling and warming sensations depending on how it’s applied. It has the added benefit of a slight pain-relieving effect on nerve endings. The National Institutes of Health undertook a study of natural oils like camphor and concluded that it is effective in relieving mild to moderate pain.


Like its counterirritant cousin, camphor, menthol is extracted from natural sources – in this case, the peppermint plant. When added to a topical cream or roll-on, it helps to relieve pain by acting as a natural pain reliever. Menthol contains molecules called ligands, which break away and attach to cellular opioid receptors. This creates a cooling and numbing effect, and it works with the gate control approach to pain relief.

Menthol is also a vasodilator. We see this word and think of medications that people with heart disease take to open blood vessels to improve blow flow. Menthol does this naturally, but only at the source of its application. Sore muscles or an injured joint benefit from increased blood flow, which bathes the area with extra nutrients.

Menthol has been used as a topical pain reliever since ancient times. Recent studies are replacing anecdotal evidence with hard, scientific facts on this organic substance’s pain-relieving abilities. Menthol’s ability to act with certain nerve receptors known as TRPM8 channels has given them the nickname of “the Cold and Menthol Receptor.”

Who knew irritation was a good thing?

It doesn’t feel that way. Topical pain relievers containing camphor or menthol offer relief from muscle soreness and joint pain. To get that relief, though, these two natural substances are playing the same game as the oyster and a grain of sand. The result in all cases is a thing of beauty.

CopperGel is clinically proven to relieve joint, muscle, and arthritis pain. Plus, this roll-on lets you focus on just the areas that hurt. Questions or concerns? Please get in touch. You can send an email to support@coppergel.com or just fill out our online contact form.

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