What Is a Topical Analgesic?

A cayenne pepper, which is sometimes used to make topical analgesics.
Article Details
  • Written By: Rebecca Harkin
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 24 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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A topical analgesic can come as a cream, gel, lotion, spray, or patch and is applied to the skin to provide temporary relief from the discomfort of muscle aches, arthritis, shingles, or minor medical procedures. Most topical analgesics work by causing the painful area to flush with blood, blocking the nerve signals and numbing the painful area, or reducing inflammation and pain. The localized action of topical analgesics produces fast pain relief with minimal side effects.

Analgesics can be superficially applied to the skin as creams, gels, lotions, sprays, or patches to temporarily relieve pain. The mode of action for these pain relievers can be as rubefacients, anesthetics, or by blocking prostaglandin production. Rubefacients, such as capsaicin, produce pain relief by opening the blood capillaries in the injured area, flushing the area with blood, and producing a soothing sensation. Anesthetics, such as benzocaine, work to block the propagation of the pain along the nerve endings, numbing the area. Topical analgesics containing methyl salicylate or non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as diclofenac or ibuprofen, suppress pain by blocking the enzymes involved in the production of prostaglandins, which signal inflammation and cause pain.


The primary use of a topical analgesic is to relieve the pain and swelling associated with arthritis as well as muscle aches and pains caused by sports injuries or physical work. In some cases, these topical pain suppressors are used to control pain during minor procedures, such as injections of novocaine to the gum during a dental procedure. A topical analgesic can also be used to relieve the pain associated with shingles.

One benefit of topical pain relievers is that they can be applied directly to the site of the pain, so there is minimal systemic distribution of the pain reliever throughout the body. This localized action minimizes the side effects of the drugs in topical pain relievers. In addition the pain relieving action of the drugs in topical analgesics, it works faster than most oral forms because it is applied directly onto the painful area and does not need to be digested and transported around the body.

There are a few downsides of topical pain reliever use. The pain relief from topical analgesics is typically short-term and often does not last as long as oral drugs. Due to the ingredients, many of these topical analgesics have a very strong and distinct odor. A topical analgesic also cannot be applied to or near open wounds or sores or an infection may result and the drug could unintentionally enter the blood stream.


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