When sore, stiff muscles just won’t relax or that chronic knee ache flares up again, grabbing a pain relief cream may help you power through. These topical analgesics use a variety of active ingredients that work in different ways. Getting familiar with the most common options can help choose the best one to target your specific type of pain.

Menthol – Found in popular creams like IcyHot and Biofreeze, menthol triggers the body’s cold receptors providing a cooling sensation to the skin. This overwhelms nerves, preventing pain signals from getting through while relaxing muscles. Menthol also reduces inflammation which can calm many types of body aches and pain.

Camphor – Often combined with menthol, camphor provides similar cooling, desensitizing and anti-inflammatory effects. It can relieve minor muscle aches, back pain, arthritis and strains or sprains. Those with very sensitive skin may experience irritation from camphor which has a slightly more intense sensation than menthol alone.

Capsaicin – Containing the heated compound that puts the spice in hot peppers, capsaicin creams like Zostrix overwhelm nerve receptors. With repeated use, nerves become desensitized to pain stimuli. The increased blood flow has additional muscle relaxant benefits. Since capsaicin takes a while to build up effectiveness, consistency is key.

MSM – Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) contains sulfur compounds used by the body to construct connective tissues. Supplementing topically with MSM allows joints, muscles and tendons to better repair from injuries and reduce inflammation causing pain. Good for treating strains, sprains, arthritis aches and exercise overexertion.

Arnica – Sourced from a European flowering plant, arnica has been used for centuries to clear bruising, reduce swelling and alleviate pain. The plant contains compounds that increase blood flow to affected tissues to speed healing while also reducing inflammation. Mainly used for bruises, sprains and post-surgical swelling.

NSAIDs – Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are available in some topical pain relief creams without a prescription. Ingredients like diclofenac, ibuprofen and salicylates inhibit inflammatory pathways the same way oral NSAIDs do without significant systemic absorption. Great for treating swollen arthritis joints, back aches, sore muscles and chronic conditions.

Understanding what’s in your pain relief cream allows choosing the best one to target swollen joints, sore muscles or damaged tissues. Combining cooling menthol, warming capsaicin or pain fighting NSAIDs with massage and rest can help get you back to moving comfortably again. Consult a pharmacist or doctor for guidance on which option may work optimal for your needs.