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When we feel pain, we’re experiencing a complicated phenomenon that’s derived from a mix of physical and psychological responses. So when we try to manage that pain, we need to look at both the physical and mental as well.
An easy go-to when you’re experiencing muscle pain after a hard workout is a pain-relieving ointment. But do they work and are they worth the price? To answer that question, we have to dig a little deeper into how our brain works with the body to process pain—and also why we might be experiencing pain to begin with.
Using Ointments to Manage Muscle Pain
If you’re feeling particularly sore the day after a hard run or race, it’s likely Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS is a mild type of muscle damage characterized by stiffness, swelling, and altered biomechanics in adjacent joints. It is one of the most common causes of compromised performance in any sport.
Choosing to manage muscle pain and soreness with a pain-relieving ointment is perfectly reasonable, says Robert Wayner, DPT, director of the Ohio Center for Running Performance. But don’t expect too much from it.
Whatever form it comes in (ointment, lotion, cream, gel), most pain-relieving topicals will have menthol in them. And while studies (like this one from Brock University) show that menthol-based topicals have little effect on pain perception in runners experiencing DOMS, they could offer a temporary mental block.
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Ointments for muscle pain tend to have a hot or cold sensation which actually work to trick your nervous system. “In a sense, they elicit a sensory response,” says Wayner. “Our nervous system can only handle so much information. The same area that relays pain to your brain also has to take input from these other sensory receptors.”
Many muscle topicals also claim to have an anti-inflammatory component to them, which Wayner questions due to the low absorption rate of the skin. “I wouldn’t use a topical anti-inflammatory for like a tendon or muscle tendon tissue or deep rooted general inflammation,” he says. “The absorption of those types of things are low.”
Relief from any of these could actually be coming from the expectancy effect—the relief you’ve been told you will feel and thus anticipate, similar to the placebo effect.
That sleight-of-hand trick can be useful when dealing with DOMS, something that most runners have experienced. One benefit is allowing your body to run through that soreness without compromising on form. “If I’m going for a run, I want my neuromuscular system to do its job,” says Wayner. “When I’m putting impact to the ground, if I have soreness and discomfort causing my nervous system to send an inhibitory function to my muscles, then that could be counterproductive and could put me at risk for further damage.”
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Beyond injury prevention, the self-massage utilized when rubbing the ointment in to a sore area is also beneficial for DOMS. “The actual rubbing of the muscles, like we do with foam rolling, has a mechanical stimulus which is going to help with pain,” says Wayner. “Also, if there is actual muscle stiffness, actual restrictions in mobility in the muscle or tendon, massage is also going to help with that.”
When Topicals No Longer Help
On the flipside, ointments for muscle pain shouldn’t be used to block signals alerting you that your body needs a break.
If you’re using a topical on a recovery day to minimize soreness? That’s great, says Wayner. Unless you have skin sensitivities or allergies, there are really no adverse effects to worry about.
But you shouldn’t need to rely on it every day. At that point, Wayner says, you should be seeking help to understand this question: “What is the underlying issue that we really need to address to minimize trauma to the tissue and prepare it better?”
6 Pain Relief Topicals We Like
Now that you know what to expect from a pain-relief topical (and it’s not the world on a platter), here are a few that we actually liked.
Dr. Bronner’s Arnica-Menthol Magic Balm | $14.92
It has the cold peppermint menthol smell that you expect, but this ointment rubs on warm before cooling off moments later, offering pain relief on sore quads for about half of a day. An added bonus? Softer skin from the olive, jojoba, and coconut oil base blend (and the price is hard to beat).
Pachamama Pain Cream | $52.99
We were surprised to find that we liked this CBD pain cream over Pachamama’s athletic CBD muscle rub, but the relief was pretty instant and sweet. CBD muscle rubs have been touted as pain-relieving cure alls, but the effectiveness in topical form has not really been studied. “We know a little bit about CBD in recovery and its anti inflammatory component, but not from a topical application,” says Wayner. So who can say if CBD (850 mg of it) is the magic ingredient here, but it’s a good product nonetheless.
J.R. Watkins Muscle Pain Relief Lotion | $16.99
This topical wins for texture as a creamy, but not too heavy lotion. It works particularly well for giving your legs a much-needed self-massage. Ingredients include magnesium, vitamin D, peppermint, and camphor.
J.R. Watkins Pain Relief Roll On | $16.99
Made from the same ingredients as the J.R. Watkins lotion, this roll on works great if you’re looking to keep your hands clean. And we found the roller to be more soothing than the hands-free spray option.
Venga CBD Recovery Balm | $50
This beeswax-based balm has a waxy consistency that rubs easily onto your skin as you massage out whatever sore area you’re focusing on. One 2 ounce jar contains 1000 mg of hemp extract to assuage your aches.
Myaderm Advanced Sport Cream | $12.99
This wasn’t our favorite CBD-derived ointment for muscle pain, but it does offer temporary soreness relief and the price is much more reasonable if you’re looking to see what the CBD fuss is all about. At 350mg, it’s less concentrated, but still has that much-need cooling sensation. And when tested at night, we woke up with less sore muscles in the morning, which is kind of the point.
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