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Topical Products To Help Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain

Posted on April 13, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Topical treatments will not treat the root cause of RA, and they can’t counteract RA’s long-term effects on the joints. These products simply provide short-term pain relief. Ask your rheumatologist for medical advice before trying a new product for RA. Rheumatologists can also recommend or prescribe topical treatments based on your body and symptoms.

Here, we will explore the different types of topical products available for RA pain, including how they work and what to keep in mind when using them. We’ll also see which options myRAteam members say work best for them.

Why Use Topical Products for RA Pain?

There are several reasons why people with RA might try topical products to help relieve foot pain, back pain, or other chronic pain. These products may be used in addition to or in place of medications and other RA treatments.

Some people prefer these products to more invasive treatments, such as steroid injections. As one member wrote, “I never had a cortisone shot. I guess I am stubborn.”

Others find that systemic medications (medications that affect the whole body) can cause unwanted side effects. One member shared, “I’ve been on several medications but they have side effects, so right now, no medication, and I’m hurting.” Another member shared similar sentiments: “I’m not taking any medication as of now due to the reaction that I have to a lot of the RA medications.” In these cases, topical products might help provide pain relief with fewer side effects. They can also help relieve pain until another treatment is found.

Some people don’t get enough pain relief from medications for RA. As one member wrote, “No medication works. Help, please.” Another said, “It seems like no RA treatment seems to work for me. I’m on my fifth treatment, and no big results.”

Lotions, creams, and other topicals may help when a person with RA does not tolerate certain treatments, or if they are looking for additional pain relief with their current RA treatment.

What Kinds of Topical Treatments Are Available for RA?

A variety of topical treatments are available for RA pain. Some can be purchased over the counter, and others may require a prescription.

Topical Medicated Pain Relief

Some of the most common topical pain relievers are made by infusing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that you might take orally, like ibuprofen or naproxen, into creams. Natural active ingredients like capsaicin (the ingredient that gives chili peppers their heat) may also be used to provide joint pain relief. Salicylates, the pain medications in aspirin, are another option.

Different people prefer different types of medicated topicals. “The topical creams with capsaicin seem to help the most,” wrote one myRAteam member. Another shared, “I use Aspercreme roll-on — for some reason, the roll-on works better than the cream for me.”

Voltaren gel, a topical NSAID, is popular among members. One explained, “I use an over-the-counter gel called Voltaren in the extra strength, and it really helps.” Another member agreed, with a caveat: “My doctor prescribed me Voltaren gel for topical use. It’s the best topical I’ve found, but it smells a little funny.”

Topical Arnica Gel

Arnica is a natural compound found in plants. It may help fight arthritis pain by reducing inflammation. One member wrote, “Arnica and turmeric really help take down inflammation and swelling.” Another shared, “I cannot live without a tub of Arnica Ice in the house.”

Arnica is a pain relief product that you can use every day, or more than once a day. It may be especially helpful with foot pain. “I highly recommend arnica lotion for your feet before bed and when you wake up,” said one member. “The difference it made for me was incredible.”

Topical Heating and Cooling Products

Some topical products produce heating or cooling sensations in the body. These products have ingredients called counterirritants, like menthol or camphor. Counterirritants create a sensation that is different from your pain to temporarily override your pain signals, “distracting” you from the pain. While using these products, you may experience a freezing sensation, a burning sensation, or both.

One of the most popular counterirritant products is Biofreeze, which many members have recommended. One wrote, “Biofreeze is just like Icy Hot, but stronger. You can get it in gel form, a spray, or a roll-on. I feel it penetrates deeper into the joint and muscle to provide better relief.” Another member added, “I love Biofreeze. Anything to feel better is my daily task!”

Some people find other products that work better for them. “I personally use a salve with similar ingredients to Vicks VapoRub,” said one member. “It has helped me through some of my toughest days!”

Topical CBD Products

Some of the most popular topical products contain cannabidiol, or CBD — a chemical derived from the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, which comes from the same plant, CBD is not a psychoactive substance. CBD will not cause a “high.” There are many ways to use CBD for RA, including lotions, salves, and other topical products.

While many people swear by CBD products, there is yet to be a definitive study proving that they work for people diagnosed with RA. However, the anecdotal evidence is compelling.

As one member wrote, “I use a CBD cream on my hands. I have run out of it several times, and after three days of no CBD, my pain escalates.” Another explained, “200-milligram CBD lotion is my go-to to relieve pain quickly.”

Some people find CBD less effective than other options, but still worth trying. One member wrote that using CBD oil on their hands at least once a day helped: “It makes my fingers not as stiff and painful, at least for part of the day.”

Talk to your rheumatologist or to another health care provider if you are interested in trying CBD creams.

Find Your Team

On myRAteam, the social network for people with rheumatoid arthritis and their loved ones, more than 186,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with RA.

Have you tried topicals for RA pain relief? What’s worked for you? Share your experience or recommendations in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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