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What is the advantage of using topical medication over pills for arthritis?

Dr. Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

Topical pain relievers are probably more effective for treating arthritis in peripheral joints, such as the fingers, wrists, elbows and knees. However, they might also be worth trying if you have arthritis in your hips or other deeper joints.

The primary advantage of topical medications is that they are usually the least invasive option because you don't ingest them, which decreases the risk of side effects. For example, topical capsaicin has been shown to be helpful when applied 4 times daily.

Consider all that has to happen for the painkilling ingredient in a swallowed pill to reach your sore joint(s). It reaches your stomach, where it is digested before being absorbed into your body in your intestines. The medication is now in your bloodstream, and will reach essentially all of the cells in your body, most of which do not need it. Finally, it must be broken down and metabolized by your liver and/or kidneys, and the resulting products of the breakdown excreted. This long journey can lead to a variety of systemic side effects, including injury to the stomach (a common problem), liver and kidneys, as well as other parts of your body, depending on the medication ingredients. By contrast, a topical analgesic has minimal, if any, systemic absorption. It bypasses the digestive tract altogether.

The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

More About this Book

The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

According to conventional wisdom, arthritis pain is an inevitable part of aging. Not so, says Dr. Grant Cooper in this practical, accessible guide. For those who do develop osteoarthritic conditions,...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.