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  • 6 min read

    If you haven't heard of topical pain relief before, you've come to the right place. We will give you a short, but sweet, introduction to topical analgesics for pain to answer your questions as well as help you make the right choice in what to use!

    History of Topical Pain Relief

    People have been rubbing relief on their skin for millennia and probably ingesting some form of painkiller for even longer. Plant herbs were one of the original sources for pain relief. (Also around that time, there was ritualistic chanting, goat sacrifices, and music to help exorcise the pain demons out of the body. Oh, and I almost forgot about bloodletting/leeching.) Herbal medicine, though, has stood the test of time and is still heavily used today.

    Medicinal plants were crushed, mixed, cooked, and applied directly to the skin, to help reduce pain, prevent infection, and help the afflicted heal quickly. All sorts of poultices, plasters, and the like, were slathered on folks everywhere. Of course, other topicals were tried, such as fried frogs and electric fish, but they fell out of favor along with the other less effective treatments.

    Things got better for pain sufferers when opium was discovered in the poppy plants. Then, it got worse due to the addictive nature of morphine and other opiates. Alternatives needed to be found.

    Through the advancement of medicine, trial and error, and the resilience of the human body, we've come to this point with a good deal of knowledge on what works and what doesn't.

    The Modern Topical Analgesic

    Another idea that evolved from the practice of medicine is that of over the counter medications and prescription medications. Each of the two broad categories have their place.The below chart outlines a few key elements to help you select: 

    Specific to Individual
    For General Population
    For Minor to Major Health Conditions
    For Minor Health Conditions
    Narrow Margin of Safety
    Wider Margin of Safety
    Higher Dosage
    Lower Dosage
    Higher Cost
    Lower Cost


     For the purpose of this article, we are mainly discussing the OTC topical pain relief products.

    Different Forms of Topical Pain Relief Products

    Topical pain relief comes in a variety of formats: balm, salve, cream, plaster, ointment, gel, lotion, oil, roll-on, spray, patch, etc. Each has benefits and disadvantages, but in the end, the customer tends to choose based on personal convenience. Some users would rather a hands-free application and lean towards using a stick or roll-on. Others want to massage the product into the skin and opt for a balm or salve format in a more finger-friendly container.

    With the different formats available, there is one important concern that few people have considered. Some forms WILL WORK BETTER than others and it depends on the individual. Your skin is the gatekeeper that dictates how awesome your pain reliever is. If you have oily skin, a more water or alcohol based topical may have better penetration. If you have dry skin, an oil-based solution may be better for you. The skin's differing composition & permeability factors enhance or prevent your favorite topical agent from doing it's best work. So, try different forms and see what form gives you knockout pain relief! 

    All that being said, it is possible to enhance the penetration of your best pain reliever. For more information on how to maximize the effectiveness of your favorite topical analgesic, check out: The 5 Things You Need to Know to Get the Most Out of Your Topical Pain Reliever. Next, let's figure out what happens once you apply the product to your skin.

    How Does Topical Pain Relief Work

    So, you've got knee pain. The first thing you should do is apply your favorite all natural topical pain reliever, Battle Balm, to your knee. (If you need to use something else, we forgive you.) In any case, you put the product directly on the body part that hurts. The direct application of the agent to the site is the same whether you have pain from arthritis, swelling, muscle strain, or other physical condition.

    Once applied, the pain relief product begins to penetrate and be absorbed through that wonderfully permeable membrane we call skin. (Note that the skin is an organ of the body, and to be healthy, you need to use high quality products.)

    Here's where things get interesting. The ingredients for your favorite product can be natural or pharmaceutical-made. Depending on the ingredient, different pain relieving effects are available to the user. Each can have one or more mechanisms of action once absorbed into the skin. Some of the categories of product are: rubefacients (skin irritants that improve blood flow), NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory & COX-2 inhibitors), & capsaicin (neuropeptide agent stimulating pain and heat neurons). Ok, so maybe it's not that interesting. At some point, we'll elaborate on each of the mechanisms of action, but first we'll see how many folks get this far into this article and are actually reading it!

    Is my Topical Pain Relief Dangerous

    If you read the labels for any topical pain relief product (which you should be doing, anyway), you'll see that they are "For temporary use only." This is an important statement that must be reiterated here. 

    All topicals, even natural ones, are designed for the pain sufferer to either use for the short-term, and/or combine with other therapies to facilitate a long-term pain relief solution.

    There are a myriad of reasons why brands advocate for moderate analgesic use. Liability is one reason why companies, including ours, do not want customers to overuse their products. Long-term use of any analgesic is not a good idea. (I'm also talking about prescription-based pharmaceuticals, as well. Those tend to be more damaging than OTC products.) If possible, seek out products that have low to no side effects on your health. The more natural products tend to be more forgiving to the body.

    Another concern is abuse. Let's face it. Even with instructions in bold print, many people still won't read them unless something is wrong. That's why the term RTFM exists. No one reads anymore! So, yes, your topical pain relief is dangerous if you don't know what you're doing and if you don't bother to learn about what you're using! But, that's why we are also here to help you!

    Existing health conditions can be another factor that can make your pain reliever dangerous. Here's one example. When you apply pain relief to your skin, it must be processed by the liver in some way, shape, or form. This means that the product ingredients eventually needs to mingle with other body parts, i.e., blood, liver, kidneys. If you have weak liver or kidney function, your body may have trouble breaking down the active ingredients in your topical and removing it from your body. A buildup of these byproducts can lead to complications. Temporary use and moderating your usage helps to reset your favorite balm's efficacy and maintain your health!

    To reduce the danger factor even more, keep topicals away from armpits, genitals, and eyes. One more thing! We don't advise the use of ANY topical pain relief product during pregnancy. No one knows exactly how any medication affects fetal development. It may be different in the future, but right now, there's no accurate data to draw concrete conclusions that these products will not harm babies in utero.

    Warnings & When to See a Doctor

    We will make this section simple. If you are not comfortable with the topical pain relief product you are using, consult a doctor and the manufacturer. If you are taking other medications, especially blood thinners, heart medications, or liver medications, consult your doctor. If you have a history of any organ damage or poor function, consult your doctor. If you are on any current medication(s), consult your doctor. 

    If you see any abnormal skin discoloration, swelling, discontinue use immediately and wash treated area with soap and water.

    Remember, you are taking topical pain relief to enhance your life. Make sure that what you take is adding to your health, not taking away from it!


    The ins and outs of topical pain relief are not that simple. Although the application is pretty straightforward, there are many things working in conjunction to provide you the knockout pain relief that you feel.

    It all boils down to 5 things to remember when buying a topical pain relief cream. 1) Read the labels. 2) Understand the ingredients so you know what is going onto and into your body. 3) Learn about the side effects and know what to look for. 4) Try different products based upon ingredients and mechanism of action. 5) When in doubt, seek out professional advice.

    This article is in no way a complete representation of the entire topical analgesic industry. It serves only to help you, the customer, be more informed and start to look at the bigger picture in your overall pain management solution! Good luck! We're always here to help. Don't hesitate to contact us!


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