A pain relief cream provides short term relief from various types of muscle and joint pain.
Pain relief creams are often used by older individuals to help them stay ahead of arthritis pain. But pain relief creams are more than just a way for your mom to treat her stiff, aching joints. They’re also widely used by athletes, construction workers, waitresses, and countless others from all walks of life.
Here is our list of the best pain relief creams, updated for 2023.
1. Penetrex Pain Relief Therapy
Penetrex is a top-rated product that is often used by people to relieve tired, aching muscles after a tough workout. It uses a mixture of traditional ingredients to provide effective relief for moderate pain and has no known side effects.
What we like: We appreciate that the cream leverages tried and true herbal pain relievers such as arnica and boswellia serrata. It’s also a good choice to use in conjunction with other types of therapy, such as braces and ice packs.
Flaws: The marketing is a bit heavy-handed. And whether it actually reduces inflammation is open to debate.
2. Biofreeze Pain Relief Gel
Biofreeze goes all-in on the menthol, which has long been used by athletic types to provide relief from muscular aches and pains. It’s a highly pure concoction that eschews parabens and common allergens and starts to work in seconds.
What we like: We like the cooling sensation the cream produces. It’s not unlike applying an ice pack. Just easier, since you don’t have to sit around holding the pack against your body. And not as severe.
Flaws: The cream contains only a single active ingredient: menthol. Those looking for something more will be disappointed.
3. Boiron Arnicare Cream
Arnicare has long been a staple of traditional medicine that’s renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is a good option for those who don’t want to expose their skin to the artificial ingredients found in some creams.
What we like: We appreciate the plant-based, homeopathic approach taken here. Arnica has a long history of pain relief in traditional medicine. At the same time, the supporting ingredients are kept to a minimum, another plus.
Flaws: The effect is fairly short-lived. Also, take the claims about it helping to reduce bruises with a grain of salt.
4. Caramelia Hemp Oil Cream for Pain Relief
Caramelia leverages the antioxidant power of hemp oil to provide relief from low and mid-level pain. Whether you suffer from arthritis, back pain, or muscle aches associated with strenuous workouts, Caramelia will help.
What we like: This cream does a great job providing wide-ranging pain relief for a variety of conditions. We like how good the skin feels as it absorbs the cream. And the omegas 3 fatty acids are a proven inflammation fighter.
Flaws: The container is smaller than the marketing suggests. And the odor is not going to be to everyone’s liking.
5. Blue Emu Analgesic Cream
The idea of using oil derived from a large flightless bird to obtain pain relief may seem strange. But emu oil is known to be rich in fatty acids that have a track record of reducing inflammation. Blue Emu leans heavily on these fatty acids.
What we like: This is a slow-acting pain reliever for less intense types of pain. And it can be quite effective when used for those purposes. Also, we appreciate the inclusion of aloe vera gel, which provides the skin a nice pick-me-up.
Flaws: Don’t expect omega-3 fatty acids to produce immediate pain relief. The effect will be more cumulative.
6. Kinpur Hemp Cream for Pain Relief & Inflammation
Cannabidiol (CBD) has changed the pain relief landscape for the better. Kinpur puts the power of cannabidiol to work on your stiff, painful joints, aching muscles, and inflammation. You’ll enjoy hours of relief from arthritis pain and you may just notice your skin is looking better too.
What we like: We appreciate that Kinpur Cream contains a generous amount of CBD-rich hemp extract. We also like that it’s not greasy and doesn’t have a repulsive smell. As a bonus of sorts, it also soothes and smoothes out rough, dry patches of skin.
Flaws: It should help with pain and dry, irritated skin. But as far as some of its other claims, don’t hold your breath.
7. Hempactiv Hemp Pain Relief Cream
Hempactiv employs the power of antioxidant-rich hemp oil to provide effective pain relief. It doubles up on that relief by also including menthol in the mix. If you need quick relief that lasts a few hours, Hempactiv has you covered.
What we like: We like how quickly the skin absorbs this cream. It’s a solid choice for less intense types of pain. That makes it suitable for after workouts, but not so great for rheumatoid arthritis. Feels great going on.
Flaws: Whereas hemp extract is high in CBD, hemp oil – used here – contains almost none.
8. Real Time Pain Relief Maxx
Real Time Pain Relief Maxx is another menthol-based pain reliever that provides quick relief. While the list of inactive ingredients is long, they’re all (more or less) derived from nature-based sources and should not produce any adverse reactions.
What we like: We like that this cream is free of GMOs, parabens, and other potentially problematic ingredients. We also like that it doesn’t leave a greasy residue and that it provides pretty effective relief from minor aches and pains.
Flaws: It’s not going to do much for more intense pain. It’s also relatively expensive.
9. Sombra Warm Therapy Natural Pain Relieving Gel
Topical pain relievers tend to address pain in one of 3 ways: either through cold or heat or by the absorption of compounds like CBD. Sombra goes the heat route by leveraging the heat-generating properties of camphor.
What we like: We appreciate how quickly Sombra gets to work providing heat to sore, achy muscles and joints. We like that it’s not greasy and that it has an agreeable fragrance. It’s also American made and reasonably priced.
Flaws: Keep it away from the kids as ingesting camphor can lead to serious side effects. Also, don’t apply it to open cuts, scrapes, or wounds.
10. Nyloxin Extra Strength Topical Gel
The final entry on our list is Nyloxin Extra Strength Topical Gel. It uses cobra venom to deliver what many consider to be some of the most effective non-prescription pain relief available. We see no reason to argue that point.
What we like: Believe it or not, there is scientific evidence that snake venom may be a highly effective type of pain reliever. So we appreciate that Nyloxin may be a bit ahead of the curve on this.
Flaws: While things look promising, you should remember that research into snake venom pain relief is still in its infancy.
Who Needs Pain Relief Cream?
Some health-related products have almost universal applicability. Sunscreen is one. Pain relief cream is another. At one time or another, everyone experiences muscle, bone, or joint pain either because of illness, injury, or a condition such as arthritis. That means just about everyone could benefit from what a pain relief cream has to offer.
Not only are these creams effective at producing short term relief from various kinds of pain, but they’re also non-addictive and typically produce no side effects. So if you’re tempted to think that pain relief creams are just for the over 50 set, think again. While they’ll certainly help older folks deal with arthritis pain, they’re also for athletes, hikers, construction workers, nurses, waiters, waitresses, and anyone else who experiences tired, aching muscles and joints.
How We Ranked
When it comes to this type of product, the primary measuring stick has to be how effective it is at delivering pain relief. If it also happens to make your skin feel silky smooth and it helps you gain some relief from psoriasis, that’s just icing on the cake. So every one of the creams on our list has proven itself capable of relieving pain. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes slowly. But at the end of the day, the pain relief is real.
Beyond pain relief, we considered things like active ingredients. This is a very different list than it would have been 10 years ago. That’s because of the advent of numerous, highly-effective CBD-based products that would have been illegal a decade ago. CBD, or cannabidiol (1), has been a game-changer when it comes to the treatment of pain. And we’re happy to share with you some of the fine pain relief creams that leverage CBD to produce outstanding results.
We also considered things such as the feel of the cream on the skin, how long it takes to absorb, and whether it leaves behind any oily residue. Finally, we considered the smell, if any, of the various products. Because you don’t want your pain reliever to make you nauseous.
Q: Do pain relief creams relieve pain?
A: Yes. Many of the best pain relief creams do an outstanding job providing pain relief for various maladies. Pain relief creams may take many different approaches and use many different ingredients. But there are many creams on the market today that are quite effective. Some leverage Chinese traditional medicine while others reach out to the Ayurvedic tradition. While still others leverage the power of menthol or hemp (2) to achieve their results.
Q: Can pain relief cream cause skin irritation?
A: Whether or not a pain relief cream causes skin irritation will depend mostly on the person who is using it. Some people simply have more sensitive skin than others. As such,w it is possible that their skin may react negatively to one or more of the ingredients in a pain relief cream. Most creams include a host of ingredients that make them smoother or act as a preservative. But the more ingredients, the greater the chance for an adverse reaction.
Q: Do pain relief creams include actual pain killers?
A: Not in the pharmaceutical sense most of us are used to. For instance, there are no opioids in pain relief cream. So there is no danger of developing some kind of addiction to this type of pain reliever. Some creams do contain hemp extract, which is rich in CBD. Although CBD is not a narcotic, it did spend many years on the government’s list of banned substances. In recent years, however, those restrictions have been relaxed.
Q: Do pain relief creams leave oily residue?
A: Some do. But we went to great lengths to choose creams for our list that do not leave behind any kind of odious after effects. Oily residues are typically the result of manufacturers using cheap ingredients. These ingredients don’t mix well with others and are not easily absorbed by the skin. As a result, they remain on the surface long after being applied, and you experience an oily residue.
Q: Do pain relief creams use traditional ingredients?
A: In some cases pain relief creams rely on ingredients from traditional Chinese (16) and Ayurvedic medicine (3) to deliver their relief. These ancient traditions harness the power of herbs, but may also lean on ingredients derived from animal or mineral sources. One of the more unusual, yet at the same time promising, traditional ingredients to find its way into pain relief creams these days is snake venom, which we’ll get to shortly.
Q: Do I need a prescription for pain relief cream?
A: You do not need a prescription for any of the pain relief creams on our list. As these products do not contain any controlled substances (4) they can be readily purchased over the counter or via the internet with no restrictions.
Q: What does a pain relief cream smell like?
A: Different pain relief creams have different odors, though a few are essentially odor-free. Some have a very pleasant, artificially derived fragrance, while others smell of the natural ingredients used in their creation. For the most part, though, they are pretty mild and don’t call too much attention to themselves.
Q: Why do so many pain relief creams include menthol?
A: Because of its association with menthol cigarettes, some people are wary about the inclusion of menthol in pain relief creams. But there’s no reason to worry. Menthol has actually shown itself to be more effective than ice in treating localized pain (5). As such, it’s used in pain relief creams for a good reason: it works.
Q: Can pain relief cream be used on children?
A: You should never use a pain relief cream of any kind on a child without first consulting your doctor. Children often have more sensitive skin than adults. In addition, their immune system is still in the developmental stage. As such, they may not react to the ingredients in these creams the same way adults do. Children may also be tempted to taste the cream that’s been applied to their skin. This can lead to serious consequences.
Q: Does snake venom actually relieve pain?
A: One of the more eye-opening developments in pain relief in recent years has been the revelation that snake venom may be an effective pain reliever (6). In fact, it may be just as effective as morphine. But without the specter of addiction hanging over it. Snake venom wine has been part of Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. But Western researchers are now discovering venom’s immense potential to relieve pain and perhaps – perhaps – treat cancer as well (7).
Q: Can pain relief cream be used on open wounds?
A: Say you’ve fallen while hiking and suffered a large open wound on your leg. It hurts like there’s no tomorrow and you don’t have any type of painkillers with you. That is, except your pain relief cream. Can you apply this to the open wound to relieve the pain? No. Doing so is only likely to make any pain many times worse. It may also lead to infection and other complications. Remember: these types of cream are meant to be gradually absorbed and distributed by the skin, not introduced directly into the bloodstream.
Q: Does hemp oil actually relieve pain?
A: Some pain relief creams contain hemp oil which is rich in antioxidants (8) and is often confused for hemp extract. The two, however, are fundamentally different in one important way. Hemp extract is rich in CBD (9). While hemp oil contains virtually no CBD. CBD is an effective means of obtaining pain relief in both the local and general sense (10). So basically, if your pain is mild use hemp oil. If it is intense hemp extract is probably a better choice.
Q: What’s the right way to use pain relief creams?
A: In most cases, the pain relief cream is applied to the area where the person is experiencing pain. It is then rubbed in thoroughly and allowed to absorb into the skin. Some will produce an immediate effect. Menthol creams, for instance, begin creating a cooling sensation just seconds after being applied. Creams rich in CBD will start to provide pain relief quickly as well. Other creams, however, particularly those using antioxidants and such to produce pain relief, are going to take longer.
Q: Can a person become addicted to pain relief creams?
A: It is theoretically possible to become psychologically addicted to just about anything. That said, there is virtually no chance of a person becoming addicted to any of the non-prescription pain relief creams on the above list. These creams contain no known addictive substances and do not generate the type of endorphin-driven high that typically signals the potential to drive addictive behavior.
Q: Is hemp extract legal?
A: A lot of people are confused over whether it’s legal for them to purchase and use pain relief creams that contain hemp. After all, until recently, hemp was still considered a controlled substance. In 2018, however, it was decoupled from marijuana at the federal level and legalized (11). As a result, it and its derivative (CBD-rich hemp extract), can legally be included in these pain relief creams. That is, provided the THC content of the hemp is less than 0.3%. Which it is by nature. So the answer to the question is ‘yes’. The hemp extract you’ll find in many of today’s most effective pain relief creams is perfectly legal to buy and use.
Q: What is emu oil?
A: Emu oil is a substance derived from the fat of the emu (12). If you’re not familiar with the emu it is a large, flightless bird that bears more than a little resemblance to an ostrich. Some people are concerned that using emu oil is akin to buying ivory. But emus are not an endangered species and are commonly used for their oil, leather, and meat. Emu oil is considered one of the slower-acting pain relievers as it relies on fatty acids to reduce inflammation (13).
Q: Is a sports cream the same as a pain relief cream?
A: It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a sports cream and a pain relief cream. They often contain similar ingredients, with the only real difference being the marketing. That said, there are quite a number of sports creams that are only intended to warm your muscles up a bit before you workout. They don’t provide much of anything by way of pain relief. Because it’s sometimes hard to tell which type of sports cream you’re getting, you should stick to creams that indicate they’re for pain relief.
Pain relief creams are effective, affordable, and convenient. They’re a great way for adults at every stage of life to obtain relief from pain caused by injury, illness, or a degenerative condition like arthritis.
In the past decade, the nature of the product has changed. CBD-based offerings have entered the marketplace delivering levels of pain relief that far exceed what you’ll get from NSAIDs, aspirin, or other OTC remedies.
All of the pain relief creams on our list have passed clinical and real-world muster and proven their immense value. Use the information provided here to help you make an informed decision regarding which one is right for you.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended pain relief cream, click here.