You thought something felt off when you loaded those grocery bags into the trunk. Now, your back muscles are tight and the pain is excruciating—crap. To loosen things up, you could pop some acetaminophen, whip out your trusty heating pad and wait it out. Or, you could slather on some lotion on that’s made from…chili peppers? Here’s the deal on capsaicin cream.
What is capsaicin cream? Capsaicin is the ingredient in chili peppers that makes your mouth feel hot when you eat them. When it’s incorporated into creams and patches, it can be an effective tool for relieving—not curing—pain caused by joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, fibromyalgia or plain old muscle strains. Capsaicin cream is typically available without a prescription, and doctors will usually advise you to apply it to wherever you’re experiencing pain a few times a day. (Just a heads up: Be absolutely sure to wash your hands before and after using it, and keep it away from your eyes and your mouth. Just like cutting up hot peppers for your famous chili, this stuff burns.)
How does it work? According to Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., editor in chief of Harvard Women's Health Watch, “We don't know exactly how capsaicin works, but it's thought to stimulate the release of substance P, a chemical that helps transmit pain signals from sensory nerve fibers to the brain. After several applications of capsaicin, local stores of substance P (and possibly other chemical pain messengers) become depleted, and the nerve fibers in that area transmit fewer pain signals.”
Does it actually relieve pain? There haven’t been many studies on the efficacy of capsaicin creams and patches, but the research that is out there is pretty promising. A 2016 University of Michigan study found that, for people with lower back woes, capsaicin reduced pain more than a placebo. (The authors of the study did note that additional research is needed.) A 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health concluded that, “Topical capsaicin has shown analgesic benefits in postherpetic neuralgia, painful polyneuropathies including diabetic and HIV-related neuropathy, and postmastectomy or surgical neuropathic syndromes.”