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Rub it on, Ointments for RA

There is an entire world of ointments for arthritis relief out there in the marketplace. Many come in colorful packages that have claims just short of miraculous. Then there are the generic ointments in their plain packages. Be aware that ointments with the same ingredients can come in a wide range of price. Flashy packages are usually more expensive. Ointments can be powerful solutions for joint pain. So, checking them out is time well spent.  

Ointments are pain relievers that are absorbed through the skin. They work best on joints that are close to the skin. For example: they would work better for the hand joints than they would for the hip joint.

Active ingredients for topicals include

  • salicylates, such as methyl salicylate
  • menthol
  • camphor
  • NSAIDs
  • lidocaine
  • capsaicin
  • Hemp oil
  • Homeopathic arnica

Some formulas have  combinations of  the active ingredients.  These preparations may be applied as a cream, spray, roll-on, or patch. Methyl salicylate, camphor  and menthol are frequently found together in various combinations and various strengths.

BenGay is one example.

BenGay was developed by Dr. Jules Bengué and brought to America in 1898. There are a number of different formulations. The active ingredients of the original formula have 18.3% methyl salicylate, and 16% menthol. The BenGay Ultra Strength has 30% methyl salicylate, 10% menthol and 4% camphor. The BenGay Arthritis Extra Strength is 30% methyl salicylate and 8% menthol. Be sure to read your labels sp you will get what you want.

Tiger Balm combines camphor and menthol plus botanicals to boost effect.

There is a variety of Tiger Balm products made in Singapore and there are other formulas made in India. The most potent form made for the USA is Tiger Balm Ultra with 11% camphor and 11% menthol.  Tiger Balm also includes other ingredients, such as  Cajuput oil and clove oil.  Although they are labeled as ‘inactive ingredients’, they are not inactive.

Biofreeze Arthritis Pain Relief Gel relies on a formula of botanicals with only 4% menthol as the active ingredient. The ‘inactive ingredients’ are a formula of herbal associated substances, including camphor and arnica.


Salonpas is a patch that contains 10% methyl salicylate, 3% camphor, and 6% menthol. It comes in different sizes and another choice is with Lidocaine.

A NSAID in a gel, Diclofenac 1%

 Diclofenac 1% is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a NSAID,  that absorbs into the skin to help relieve pain in joints. It is used for osteoarthritis and has been successfully used by those with RA. It also relieves RA pain caused by itching. It is an NSAID that works locally without the side effects of stomach upset. About 6% of the diclofenac is absorbed systemically.  It is available over the counter and by prescription. Voltaren Gel is a brand name for diclofenac 1%.

An anesthetic in a cream, Lidocaine

A numbing anesthetic available as an ointment and a patch. It is available OTC and by prescription. Aspercreme makes a variety of formulas with 4% lidocaine. Ebanel Numb520 is 5% lidocaine.

Hot Stuff

Capsaicin is an active component of chili peppers. Capsaicin works by changing the perception of pain. The mayo clinic recommends using capsaicin creams several times a day for joint pain. It is also available as a patch.  The standard strength is .1%.  Capzix is a common brand for $12.99

Hemp oil

Hemp oil is frequently combined with botanicals for pain relief and to reduce inflammation. Hempcreame is an example. This cream contains hemp oil, turmeric, aloe vera, arnica, Boswellia Serrata, and menthol.


Homeopathic medicine uses highly diluted substances. Arnica Montana formulas are popular homeopathic creams used for osteoarthritis. T-Relief Arnica+12 is a good example.

There are many products that contain a lengthy list of ingredients listed under inactive ingredients.  Many of these ingredients are not inactive. There seems to be  a tacit understanding in the pharmaceutical world that ingredients may be listed under inactive ingredients as long as these ingredients contribute to the product. The FDA doesn’t recognize the therapeutic value of these ingredients although many have been  helpful herbal remedies for centuries. Boswellia and arnica are examples.

Many of these products have persuasive marketing schemes that can be misleading.  Australian Dream, active ingredient, histamine dihydrochloride,  has been tested and found not to be any more effective than a placebo. It has impressive ads and is expensive. If it helps you, it probably is the placebo effect.

Then how do you choose?  The first thing to look at is the list of ingredients.  They will probably be one or more of the traditional ingredients. But then check the inactive ingredients to see if there are any that are a concern for you. Compare several formulas.

Trial and error seem to be a common approach to arthritis drugs. The process is the same for ointments. Don’t be misled by flashy packaging and exaggerated claims. Check the list of ingredients. Frequently the cheaper ointment has the same strength of medication as the more expensive one. Sometimes not. Best to compare.

I have added a few links in the article to help you find something that will work for you.

This entry was posted in: Treatment


Woman, friend, mother, RN, photographer, gardener, writer, researcher, observer, swimmer. Pretty much the same as everyone else with my own little twist to things. RA, and three cancers and counting. Life is good despite the obstacles. It's worth the ride just to see the infinite variations of the human spirit.

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