An arthritis cream is a topical medication applied directly to the point of arthritis pain to provide relief.
Arthritis creams utilize various mechanisms to achieve this pain relief. Some create a cooling sensation, some numb nerve endings in the affected area, some are what’s called ‘counterirritants’, and others address inflammation.
Arthritis creams are non-narcotic, safe, convenient, and affordable. They have the added benefit of being able to relieve many other types of pain as well. We researched and tested scores of the most popular arthritis creams on the market and determined that the following are the best arthritis creams of 2021.
1. Blue Emu Maximum Arthritis Pain Relief Cream
If you are new to the world of pain relief creams, you may wonder if ’emu oil’ is what it seems. Well, it is. It’s oil derived from a large flightless bird native to the southern hemisphere. And it just happens to have some pretty impressive anti-inflammatory abilities.
What we like: Blue Emu Maximum Arthritis is effective and long-lasting. It gets to work fast and doesn’t leave your skin feeling oily. In fact, the aloe vera in the cream provides a nice revitalizing effect. Great for everyday arthritis pain.
Flaws: It’s relatively expensive by volume. And there are several artificial ingredients. Should that matter to you.
2. Aspercreme with Lidocaine Maximum Strength
Aspercreme has been around for a long time. The original formulation uses, you guessed it, aspirin to affect pain relief. But this arthritis pain mixture leverages the power of lidocaine, which numbs nerve endings to shut down pain.
What we like: We appreciate how quickly this lidocaine-based cream gets to work. In just a few minutes, you’ll feel significant pain relief in both muscles and joints. We also appreciate that the relief lasts for several hours. Can’t say that about some creams.
Flaws: It achieves pain relief by numbing the nerve endings in the affected area. Some will like that, and some will not.
3. Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel
Biofreeze is well known to athletes and others who need relief from muscle and joint pain. It just so happens that it’s also effective at reducing arthritis pain. Biofreeze uses menthol to produce a cooling effect that shuts down pain signals.
What we like: We like that Biofreeze gets to work in a hurry. We like that it doesn’t make your skin feel greasy. And we appreciate that you can use it on various types of pain. We also appreciate that it’s not tested on animals and won’t irritate the skin.
Flaws: Not everyone is into treating pain with cold. And, while this works, it seems to be a minor step down in potency from earlier iterations.
4. Australian Dream Arthritis Pain Relief Cream
Histamine dihydrochloride, the active ingredient in Australian Dream Arthritis Pain Relief Cream, is sometimes used as a treatment for leukemia. But it’s also effective at reducing low to moderate levels of muscle and joint pain.
What we like: We appreciate that it doesn’t leave your skin feeling oily. That its effects seem to last a reasonably long time and that it doesn’t have a medicinal smell. The histamine dihydrochloride is also pretty effective at reducing inflammation.
Flaws: It’s primary mechanism of improving blood circulation to reduce pain and stiffness isn’t going to work for everybody. It’s also expensive.
5. Penetrex Pain Relief Therapy
If you suffer from arthritis pain, Penetrex can help. For more than a decade it has been among the most popular pain relief creams on the market. Helping everyone from athletes to people with arthritis obtain effective, non-narcotic pain relief.
What we like: We like the wide-ranging applicability of this pain relief cream and the integrity of the production process (no GMOs, no animal testing, etc.). It provides fast, effective pain relief with no side effects.
Flaws: Considering the size of the jar it’s pretty expensive. And while good for mild to moderate pain, it’s not really for intense pain.
6. Topricin Pain Relief Cream
Topricin Pain Relief Cream takes a homeopathic approach to arthritis pain relief with favorable results. It features a host of proven herbal pain relievers and is side effect free. If you’re put off by lidocaine, Topricin is an effective alternative.
What we like: We appreciate how they cover all the homeopathic bases with things like arnica, belladonna, and crotalus horridus. We like that it works pretty well on many types of pain, including arthritis. And it’s reasonably priced.
Flaws: Like most OTC arthritis creams it’s not great for intense pain.
7. Bengay Topical Analgesic Cream
Bengay enjoys a level of brand recognition few others can match. They produced one of the first widely accepted pain relief creams more than half a century ago. And they’re still going strong with their lidocaine-based analgesic cream.
What we like: Like most creams that employ lidocaine Bengay Topical Analgesic Cream doesn’t waste time getting to work. People living with arthritis will appreciate that. We also like that the jar is small enough to take on a plane in your carry on bag.
Flaws: Contains a laundry list of artificial ingredients. Also, if you suffer from liver problems or seizures you shouldn’t use lidocaine.
8. Zostrix Maximum Strength Natural Pain Relief Cream
Zostrix makes no bones about the fact that they leverage the counterirritant power of capsaicin to provide fast, effective pain relief. Apply a bit to your arthritic joints and the capsaicin goes right to work blocking pain signals.
What we like: Zostrix is an effective counterirritant that starts producing relief in about 10-15 minutes. Sometimes less. We like how long the effect lingers. So you don’t have to spend your day continually re-applying it. The tube is also airplane friendly.
Flaws: Skin stays warm longer than you probably think it will. So re-applying too soon could cause some heat-related discomfort.
9. Enduras Recovery Cream
A quick glance through the ingredient list of Enduras Recovery Cream reveals no particularly revolutionary ingredients. What it does reveal is a cream loaded with things that help reduce inflammation, which is at the heart of most types of pain.
What we like: We appreciate that this anti-inflammatory cream works quickly, usually in about 10 or 15 minutes. We like how it feels going on thanks to the aloe. And that it can be used on other types of pain besides arthritis.
Flaws: Some might be put off a bit by all the artificial ingredients. It’s also expensive.
10. Arthritis Wonder Pain Relief Cream
Wogonin is relatively new to the Western pain relief model. But it works on the familiar principle that reducing inflammation will reduce pain in most cases. It’s a sound principle, and Arthritis Wonder Pain Relief Cream is proof of that.
What we like: We like the way this cream feels going on and that it seems to get to work pretty fast. It also has a pleasant scent and doesn’t leave your skin all greasy. The open-ended money-back guarantee is also nice.
Flaws: The relief is real but relatively short-lived, so you have to keep on using it. Also, it’s not so effective for rheumatoid arthritis.
Who Needs Arthritis Cream?
Anyone of any age who suffers from the pain and discomfort of arthritis needs to have arthritis cream on hand to provide both short and long term relief. Arthritis cream is an affordable and, perhaps even more importantly, effective and convenient way for arthritis sufferers from all walks of life to obtain some control over their condition. Whether you have slowly developed osteoarthritis (1) over the course of many years, or you have been stricken by rheumatoid arthritis (2) suddenly and unexpectedly, a good arthritis cream can help.
Keep in mind too that many arthritis creams deal with controlling or reducing inflammation. A major cause of pain for everyone. Not just arthritis sufferers. So if you are an athlete dealing with sore muscles or a waitress with a sore back or you were involved in an accident and are experiencing pain and stiffness, many types of arthritis cream can help.
How We Ranked
With this type of product, one consideration takes precedence over all others: the ability to relieve pain. If we determined an arthritis cream was ineffective in this regard, it did not make our list. Period. That said, the end does not always justify the means. And by that we mean that if the pain relief a particular cream provided came with odious side effects, it too did not make our list.
Along a similar line, active ingredients were also important in deciding which arthritis creams were worthy of a slot on our list. We looked for creams that used reliable ingredients such as camphor, menthol, salicylates, and such. These are active ingredients that don’t require a prescription and have a proven track record.
The nature of the pain relief was also important. Some creams provide pain relief by simply numbing the nerves in a particular area. While this can be an effective way to shut down pain it doesn’t actually address the cause of many types of pain. Other creams are counterirritants. They create a warm or cool sensation that blocks pain signals. Still other pain relief creams go after the source of the pain. Which more often than not, is inflammation. Many health professionals believe this to be the preferred approach.
The duration of the pain relief was also a consideration. Some arthritis creams provide short term relief and others more extended term relief. If a particular cream provided only short term relief then you would need to be able to re-apply it multiple times. If you couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be much good. At the same time, though, if the relief was more long-lasting, then the ability to rapidly re-apply it was not so important.
Arthritis cream is effective. Medical professionals acknowledge that arthritis creams are an effective way to reduce the pain and discomfort of arthritis. Different creams go about it in different ways. Some employ salicylates (3) which reduce inflammation, others utilize camphor (4) or menthol and still others use capsaicin (5) to generate heat and soothe aching muscles and joints. But regardless of the mechanism the better ones can and do provide both short and long term relief in most cases.
Arthritis cream is affordable. Have you checked out the price of prescription painkillers for arthritis? Plaquenil is more than $1,000 for 100 tablets, while Rituxan costs about the same for a mere 10 ml. The only real word for that is ‘outrageous’. Fortunately, arthritis cream provides an affordable and effective alternative to out of control prescription drug prices. You’ll get the relief you need without cleaning out your bank account.
Arthritis cream is convenient. One of the many great things about arthritis cream is that if you’re suffering a flareup of pain, you can just reach for it and obtain relief. No trips to the doctor. No limits on use. Arthritis in your hands bothering you today? Just reach over to the nightstand or into the bathroom cabinet and grab the arthritis cream.
Most arthritis creams can be used whenever necessary. If you are using an arthritis cream that contains salicylates you may want to limit the use to 3 or 4 times per day (6). However, most other arthritis creams can be used whenever you require relief. That is in stark contrast to prescription meds that typically come with strict limits on how frequently you can take them.
Arthritis cream is safe to use. The FDA (7) does a pretty good job ensuring dangerous products don’t wind up on store shelves or websites where they can be easily purchased and used. We say this to make a point: if these arthritis creams are readily available in the US market, then they’ve passed muster with the FDA. As such, you can consider them safe as long as you use them as directed.
Arthritis cream is virtually side effect free. This is one of the strongest selling points for most OTC arthritis creams. The lone exception might be creams that leverage NSAIDs. With such creams, a small amount will still wind up in the bloodstream. So people with a salicylate intolerance (8) will want to discuss use of these creams with their doctor first. That said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone complaining of side effects from most arthritis creams on the market.
Arthritis cream lets you target the pain. One of the most significant drawbacks to pills and injectable painkillers is that they affect the entire body. Fortunately, arthritis creams let you avoid this type of medical overkill. They let you bring relief to the point of pain. So you’re not drenching the muscles of your legs with drugs to reduce the pain in your hand. You can apply the cream directly to the hand and the medicine stays there.
Arthritis cream can help people with RA. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or RA (9) typically affects every part of the body. The result is cumulative pain that can be quite extraordinary. As such, RA sufferers often think these creams won’t be able to help them. But while an arthritis cream may not alleviate all the pain of RA, the fact is it can help reduce the amount of pain a person experiences. And that by itself should justify its use.
Arthritis cream enables you to live your life. It’s long been known that arthritis can cause older individuals to become isolated (10). Walking and doing other simple tasks becomes a painful ordeal. Folks don’t want to suffer in public, so they isolate and become inactive. But inactivity can generate a host of secondary health problems (11). Arthritis cream can enable you to go on about your normal life.
Arthritis cream is easy to use. A vast number of medications require you to choke down a huge pill followed by a quart or so of water. Understandably, millions of people with arthritis aren’t thrilled by that prospect. Arthritis cream is the easy to use alternative to horse pills. All you do is remove the cap, apply a bit to the problem area, and rub it in. That’s it.
Arthritis cream lets you sleep better. Arthritis can negatively affect virtually every aspect of a person’s life. And that includes their ability to sleep. Arthritis pain is a common source of insomnia in older individuals (12). That might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but a lack of sleep can have numerous negative consequences. Including, increasing a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s (13). Arthritis cream can relieve pain and help you get to sleep.
Arthritis cream saves you money. Earlier, we mentioned that arthritis cream could save you from having to make trips to the doctor. They can also reduce the need for expensive prescription drugs to deal with the pain. But that’s not all. They can also help you stay active and maintain better overall health. And that is going to reduce further the amount you have to spend on doctor visits and medications.
Arthritis cream is portable relief. Arthritis cream can be slipped into a purse or pocket. And, if the container is smaller than 3.4 ounces, it can be taken on an airplane as well (14). That means you’ll have effective pain relief at your fingertips no matter where you go. This type of portability can enable you to enjoy your life more fully wherever you are and whatever you happen to be doing.
Arthritis cream is available without a prescription. If you’re suffering from arthritis pain, you don’t want to have to wait weeks to see a doctor and get a prescription. You want relief now. Arthritis creams are readily available in drug stores or via the internet without a prescription. There’s no pleading your case to the doctor and no need to pay for an expensive office visit. Just the relief you want when you want it.
Arthritis cream will work for everyone, not just the elderly. That’s important because, contrary to popular belief, arthritis can affect people of any age. In fact it’s not uncommon for men and women in their 20s and 30s to develop arthritis (15)(16). These younger individuals need help managing the pain as well. Fortunately, arthritis cream works equally well for 20-somethings and 60-somethings. A fact younger readers should not ignore.
Q: What is arthritis cream?
A: Arthritis cream is a topical medication that is rubbed into the skin at the site of pain to provide relief. These creams (the OTC ones we’re talking about here) use a variety of non-narcotic ingredients to numb the affected areas or to reduce inflammation and other aggravating factors. Arthritis creams are affordable, portable, effective, and very convenient. Millions of people rely on them for arthritis pain relief on a daily basis.
Q: Do arthritis creams really work?
A: Yes, arthritis creams really do work. Of course, some work better than others, and it is those superior creams that were of primary interest to us. These creams are applied directly to the affected area and get to work at various rates. The ones that induce numbness and those, like menthol, that work by cooling an area tend to produce the fastest results. Those that work via heat or by reducing inflammation tend to take a bit longer, although the pain relief is often longer-lasting.
Q: Can arthritis cream handle all kinds of arthritis pain?
A: For the most part, the better arthritis creams will produce X level of pain relief. In some cases that may be enough to alleviate all the pain a person is experiencing. But in other cases, that level of pain relief may only take the top off a particular pain. Even so, when it comes to pain, some relief is usually better than no relief. The bottom line is arthritis creams will typically handle all kinds of arthritis pain. But that doesn’t mean 100% relief in every case.
Q: What is lidocaine?
A: Lidocaine (17) is a popular anesthetic drug used for a variety of purposes. It’s so popular in fact that it is on the WHO’s list of 100 essential medicines (18). Lidocaine works by numbing the nerve endings in the area where it is applied. By doing so, it effectively mutes pain signals to the brain that were being sent by those nerves. Lidocaine is no doubt effective. But it does not address the underlying cause of the pain.
Q: What the heck is wogonin?
A: Wogonin is an herb that has been a staple of Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. Intensive scientific scrutiny in recent years has revealed it to have robust anti-inflammatory properties. And that makes it attractive as a potential pain reliever (19). As a result, you will now find it in a number of arthritis and sports creams designed to provide safe and effective pain relief.
Q: Is arthritis cream safe?
A: Because they are approved for over the counter (OTC) sales by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is reasonable to assume the above-listed arthritis creams are safe. When used as directed, that is. If there are application limits spelled out on the package (and there are in a few cases), make sure you adhere to those limits. Also, after applying the cream, always make sure to wash your hands before you touch or rub your eyes.
Q: Does arthritis cream produce any side effects?
A: Arthritis creams like the ones profiled above have a reputation for being blissfully free of side effects. Of course, there is always the risk that someone may have an allergy to an ingredient in one of these pain relievers. Also, some will be more sensitive to the heating or cooling properties of various creams. In addition, if a person uses far more of a particular product than is recommended, they may experience side effects. For instance, very large amounts of menthol may produce a burning sensation.
Q: Why isn’t there a cure for arthritis?
A: Arthritis takes 2 forms. One is the result of wear and tear, which is virtually impossible to prevent completely. That is what’s called ‘osteoarthritis’. The other results from dysfunction of the immune system (20) wherein the body’s self-defense mechanisms turn inward and attack healthy tissue. We call that ‘rheumatoid arthritis’. There are enormous amounts of research being conducted in this form of arthritis as you read this. And one day, hopefully, that research will result in a cure.
Q: How long does it take arthritis cream to work?
A: It depends on the cream and the mechanism it uses to produce relief. An arthritis cream with menthol will provide some cooling relief almost immediately. But it’s not likely to last very long. Creams that reduce inflammation will take longer, maybe 15-30 minutes, to start generating noticeable relief. In some cases, the relief is cumulative. Meaning it will take multiple applications before enough accumulates on the affected area to produce relief.
Q: Are arthritis creams guaranteed to work?
A: Some come with a money-back, satisfaction guarantee and some do not. That’s mostly because quantifying what ‘relief’ means for everyone is nearly impossible. One person may believe they’ve experienced enough relief to consider the product effective. Another person experiencing the same amount of relief may think it’s not enough and that the product has failed. As such, guarantees become tricky things.
Q: Do arthritis creams contain opioids?
A: No. None of the over the counter arthritis creams on our list contain opioids (21). Or any other type of narcotic (22) for that matter. To obtain narcotics for pain relief, you’ll need to have a prescription from a doctor. But those are increasingly difficult to get because of the opioid crisis that was declared two years ago by the federal government. Arthritis creams contain no addictive substances.
Q: Can I use arthritis cream if I’m taking other medications?
A: In most cases, there should be no problem with interactions between these creams and other meds. Mostly because these creams are non-narcotic, but also because both the administration and effect are localized. However, if you are currently taking prescription medications for arthritis or any other condition, you should discuss the matter with your doctor before you start using an arthritis cream. Just to be sure.
Q: Can I use arthritis cream for other types of pain?
A: Yes. Arthritis creams are often very effective at alleviating other types of pain. That’s because, while arthritis pain is typically chronic in nature, the source of much of the pain is inflammation. And inflammation is also at the heart of many other non-arthritic types of pain (23). So any pain relief cream designed to reduce inflammation will likely work with other types of pain. As too will creams with lidocaine designed to numb nerve endings.
Q: Will Medicare cover the cost of arthritis cream?
A: Not usually. There may be some Medicare Advantage plans (24) that will reimburse for some or all of the cost. But even they are fairly rare. When it comes to arthritis, Medicare will typically cover the cost of ambulatory or emergency care, related hospital stays, and some prescription medications. But not over the counter meds like the arthritis creams profiled above.
Q: What is a counterirritant?
A: You may hear or read this word when shopping for an arthritis cream. Essentially, a counterirritant (25) is any substance that irritates the skin in one place and, in doing so, lessens irritation (pain) in another place. Arthritis creams that create the sensation of heat are counterirritants. By generating the sensation of heat, they block pain signals that were being sent by nerve endings in the affected area, and the user gets relief.
Q: How does menthol relieve pain?
A: Most people associate menthol with cigarettes or breath mints. But menthol is also a powerful counterirritant and, as such, can be quite effective at alleviating mild to moderate muscle and joint pain. Not everyone enjoys the cold sensation menthol generates on the skin, which is one reason it’s not more popular as a pain reliever.
Q: Can I take my arthritis cream with me on an airplane?
A: Yes, TSA allows you to take arthritis cream with you in both your checked baggage and carry on bag. With one significant caveat: the container must hold no more than 3.4 ounces of cream. Any containers larger than that will be removed and discarded. So feel free to take your arthritis cream with you. Just make sure to order the right size jar or tube.
Q: Is capsaicin safe?
A: Capsaicin is an extract of the chili pepper. It is a classic counterirritant in that it generates a sensation of warmth that blocks pain signals to the brain. It is considered safe and effective. That said, you need to be careful not to touch your face – and particularly your eyes – after you’ve rubbed capsaicin into your arthritic hands. Wait at least half an hour for the capsaicin to generate the relief and then wash your hands before touching your face.
Arthritis creams are a convenient and affordable way to obtain relief from the pain and discomfort of osteo or rheumatoid arthritis. You don’t need a prescription to buy them, and there are no complicated directions regarding use.
Today’s arthritis creams utilize several different mechanisms for producing pain relief. Some do so by cooling or heating the affected area, others by numbing nerve endings and still others by addressing the inflammation that’s at the heart of much arthritis pain.
All of the arthritis creams on our list have well-deserved reputations for effectiveness and safety. We hope you find the above information helpful when it comes to determining which of these creams is right for you.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended arthritis cream, click here.