How Arthritis Pain Cream & Gel Works

Learn how over-the-counter arthritis cream and gel works and whether OTC arthritis cream or gel is the best solution for you.

Person rubbing joints on hand

Living with arthritis isn’t always easy, but having a few tricks in your back pocket to help manage pain and other bothersome symptoms can be immensely beneficial. Making healthy lifestyle choices is a great way to manage pain long-term, but there are also different kinds of topical OTC medications you can chose from to help relieve your arthritis pain. Below, we’ll cover OTC arthritis creams and gels.

Topical Creams and Gels: What Are They?

In contrast to oral pain relievers, topical pain medication is a pain reliever that is applied to and absorbed through the skin.1 Topical pain relievers typically come in the form of a cream or a gel, as well as in spray or patch form.2 With a topical arthritis cream or gel, the active ingredients are absorbed by the skin, and penetrate and relieve arthritis joint pain in areas such as the hand and knee.1 This is different from the way that oral pain relievers like a tablet or pill work. Pills typically travel to the stomach where they are absorbed into the blood stream and circulate through the body to the site of pain.1

What Types of Creams and Gels Are Available?

There are a few different ways that over-the-counter arthritis creams and gels are formulated, so taking a look at the active ingredient or ingredients can be helpful when selecting the right cream or gel for your specific symptoms.


A topical anesthetic works by producing a numbing sensation that reduces pain. Lidocaine is a common anesthetic, and can be found as a cream, gel, spray, or patch.2


A common kind of OTC arthritis cream and gel is the counterirritant. These products are formulated with ingredients like menthol or camphor. When applied to your skin they create a feeling of or cold and work by distracting your brain from the arthritis pain.2


OTC salicylates are another option to help relieve your arthritis pain and include methyl salicylate and trolamine salicylate. Salicylates are derivatives of aspirin, but the way they work is a little different. It’s thought that topical salicylates work at least in part through counter irritation.1


If you’ve ever eaten a hot chili pepper, then you’re familiar with the burning sensation that these spicy peppers can cause. This sensation comes from capsaicin, which is an ingredient that overwhelms the nerve cells and reduces a chemical that is used to send pain messages.2 Similar to the burning feeling of touching your eyes after eating a hot pepper, OTC arthritics creams and gels that contain capsaicin will also sting if they come into contact with your eyes or mouth.2 Treating arthritis pain with capsaicin is most effective when used multiple times a day, and may take up to two weeks of consistent treatment to provide pain relief.2 If you are allergic to hot peppers, do not use products that contain capsaicin.1

Topical NSAIDs

Topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), like Voltaren Arthritis Pain gel, work in the same way as oral NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen. However, topical NSAIDs are applied to the skin directly at the site of pain. Like oral NSAIDs, topical NSAIDs work by blocking the production of pain signaling chemicals called prostaglandins. Topical NSAIDs such as Voltaren have been extensively studied in osteoarthritis and are clinically proven to provide powerful arthritis pain relief.

Why Use a Topical Cream or Gel?

Topical arthritis pain products offer an alternative to pills. If you have a difficult time swallowing pills or tablets, using a cream or gel treatment might be a better solution for you. Some people who already take oral medications don’t want to add another pill to their daily intake, so will also opt to go the topical route. Some other situations in which an over-the-counter arthritis cream or gel may be preferable to an oral pain reliever or medication is if you’re someone whose stomach is sensitive to NSAIDs, the source of your arthritis pain is located near the surface of your skin, or if the pain you’re experiencing is concentrated in a specific area like located in a single joint in your hand.1

Are There Any Precautions I Need to Take with Topical Creams and Gels?

Yes. When using an OTC medicine, including a gel or a cream, you should read the product labeling and be sure to use as directed. The label will tell you things like use purpose, warnings such as when to ask a doctor or when to stop use, and the directions for use. The labeling also includes safety information for consumers. For example, many medicated creams and gels instruct consumers to avoid applying to broken or irritated skin.

Voltaren Arthritis Pain gel, now available without prescription, was previously doctor prescribed in the US for 10+ years and is clinically proven to be an effective anti-inflammatory pain reliever with a proven safety profile. For more resources and product information, visit the Voltaren FAQ page.

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About Pain

Pain is an unpleasent as it is vital, acting as a warning signal. It"s often the result of damaged tissue, which leads to inflammation. See how you can find relief and move freely again.


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Voltaren Arthritis Pain Relieving Gel Package
Voltaren Arthritis Pain Relieving Gel Package

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Use as directed. Voltaren is approved for treatment of arthritis pain.

VOLTAREN DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS - DISCLAIMER Dietary supplements from Voltaren are not intended to treat arthritis pain.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.