Common Muscle Pain Relief Medications

Options available in commercially available medications for relief of muscle pain due to injury or overexertion.

If you've ever taken a tumble off your bike or exercised too vigorously, you've had to make a decision about what product, if any, to use to handle the resultant muscle pain. If you routinely pop an aspirin in these cases, you may be overlooking a wide variety of other pain relief products that might better serve your needs.

Oral versus Topical

When selecting a medication to deal with common muscle pain, your first decision is whether you prefer to take a pill, or apply a medicine directly to your skin.Pills or other oral (by mouth) medications enter the bloodstream via the digestive system; therefore everywhere your blood goes will receive the effects, whether or not it is needed. For systemic problems, oral medication is the clear choice; more local problems, such as sore muscles from overexertion, may be best addressed with a topical solution.

Topical - rub versus patch

Topical medications have traditionally been in the form of ointments and salves, mixtures of healing herbs and animal fat or butter; today's muscle rubs are the direct descendents of these original recipes. A more recent innovation is the stick-on patch, which delivers the medication through direct contact with the skin over a long period of time. If your muscle pain is in an area typically covered by clothing, you may prefer the long-lasting effects of the patch products. Rubs can provide immediate relief for minor pains, but will need to be reapplied periodically if your aches and pains are persistent. Rubs are usually fairly strong smelling and can be oily, so beware damage to your clothing.

Common ingredients

Once you've decided how you want your medication of choice applied, your next decision is which 'active ingredient' is best suited to your individual situation. There are three main categories of effect these ingredients will have - analgesic (pain-killing), anti-inflammatory, and irritating (which, counter-intuitively, is not undesirable in a pain-medicine). Some ingredients may have more than one of these effects - aspirin, for instance, is both analgesic and anti-inflammatory. 'Irritating' ingredients are those such as menthol and camphor, which cause a mild, not-unpleasant stinging sensation that some people feel as heat and others feel as a chill. This causes a pain-relieving effect because the nerves are 'distracted' in sending the brain the heat/chilling message, and thus can't carry the sore-muscle message at the same time. Look for the following common ingredients on the labels of pain medications:

Salicylate - this is the active ingredient of aspirin. If you are avoiding aspirin for any reason, you should avoid topical preparations containing salicylate. Otherwise, it is very effective applied right to the source of the pain, and also serves to reduce inflammation that may be the cause of much of the pain.

Menthol, camphor, clove oil - these are all 'irritating' agents that feel either warm or icy on the skin. Most people find the sensation soothing, not irritating. They are very effective for easing pain temporarily. Many topical gels and patches contain one or several of these ingredients, most commonly menthol.

Capsaicin - a special case in the 'irritating agents' category, capsaicin is the substance that makes cayenne peppers taste hot, and which can burn your skin. Used in a salve, it functions in the same way as menthol and the other irritants; it has been used in herbal preparations for literally centuries. Modern research has discovered that it also has the property that if used over a period of time, it decreases the nerves' store of 'Substance P', which transmits pain messages to the brain, resulting in a reduction in the ability to feel pain. Since it can take two weeks of application for this effect to be noticed, it is more useful for managing chronic pain such as that associated with arthritis.


If your muscle pain is the result of bruising rather than overexertion, look for herbal preparations that contain arnica or comfrey. Arnica stimulates the circulation and speeds the re-absorption of the blood that makes up the bruise. One of comfrey's folk-names is 'bruisewort', a testament to its centuries of use in healing bruises. Also known as 'boneset', it promotes healing in broken bones by stimulating cell regeneration. Its usefulness against bruises is thought to be due to its ability to break down red blood cells and thus shrinking the bruise.

Make your own

If you find the menthol-type preparations effective, you can easily make your own; just add 5-10 drops of peppermint, camphor, eucalyptus or clove essential oil - or some combination totaling 5-10 drops - into a tablespoon of unscented massage oil. In a pinch, any vegetable oil, even salad oil, will serve the purpose. Apply the mixture to the source of the pain and rub in well; a massage using these oils will be even more effective. Make sure you use pure essential oils and not grocery-store 'peppermint-flavored extract', which is an artificial flavor that may or may not contain any real peppermint. As always, apply unknown ingredients sparingly at first until you are confident you aren't allergic to them.

Don't assume that because something is an 'herbal' product, it is less effective than a 'modern science' product. Many of our standard medicines were originally derived from herbal ingredients, and in some cases, the original herbal preparations actually work better than the chemical re-creations, for reasons that are not well understood. Read the labels of products in the pain-relief section of your local pharmacy and try both analgesic and counter-irritant products to see which one works best for you.

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