Can topical creams help treat localized chronic pain?

Can topical creams help treat localized chronic pain?

Treating chronic pain is complicated. With concern growing about overuse of opioids for pain and worries about side effects of some other medicines, many patients are looking for alternatives. One option many consider is medicated creams that are applied to the skin.

Unfortunately, a recent study showed topical creams did not appear to work any better than a placebo. There were a couple of caveats, though; one of the more promising creams was not tested, and the group being tested might not represent the general population.

A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine tested topical creams on a group of patients in an academic military treatment facility who had localized chronic pain. The patients were given either a medicated cream or a placebo (a cream with no medication in it). The study found that both groups improved with use of the cream, but those treated with the medicated cream did no better than those treated with a placebo.

The website 2 Minute Medicine noted that the study was of high quality because it used a double-blind design—neither the researchers nor the patients knew who was getting the medicated cream and who was getting the placebo.

Study limitations
The study did have limitations, however. It didn’t test the use of capsaicin cream—a topical medication that has shown promise—because it would have been impossible to hide the burning sensation it causes and users would have known whether they were getting a placebo or not. 

One other caution is that the military service members were relatively young, so they don’t necessarily represent the general adult population; the results might not be the same in the general population.

Using topical creams
Because topical creams tend to carry little risk, if you’re looking for pain-treatment alternatives, you may want to try them and see what kind of results you get. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Read the directions carefully and don’t use more than recommended.
  • Don’t put the cream on an open wound or damaged skin.
  • Wash your hands well after applying, especially creams containing capsaicin. Don’t touch your eyes or your genitals with cream on your hands.
  • Check with your doctor before using creams that contain salicylatesif you’re allergic to aspirin.
  • Don’t use a medicated cream with a heating pad.

If chronic pain is impacting your life, don't wait to schedule an appointment at Southwest Spine and Pain Center. With three locations and growing, the pain management specialists at Southwest Spine and Pain Center are dedicated to helping those who suffer from chronic pain live the life they want to! To schedule an appointment, visit our locations tab!

The advice and information contained in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to replace or counter a physician’s advice or judgment. Please always consult your physician before taking any advice learned here or in any other educational medical material.

©Southwest Spine and Pain Center, 2018