Gear & Stuff

Pills or Rubs?

By Tanya Davies

You played a hard, fast and fun game of ultimate yesterday, and then stretched afterwards.  However, you still woke up stiff and sore this morning. You want to do something to alleviate the pain but don’t know whether to try an over the counter topical cream or take oral pain medication such as Tylenol or Advil. The topical ointment versus systemic medication question is quite common, however these two pain relieving techniques actually work in very different ways. 

Topical Creams

Topical medications work by creating either a heating or cooling sensation that will soothe or distract you from the pain. They work locally (only where you apply it) when you either spray or gently rub it into the skin over the painful muscle or joint. They work immediately; however, the cooling or heating sensation doesn’t last for long.   

Heat treatments: These products contain ingredients such as capsaicin, from chili pepper seeds, which create a heating sensation where you apply it.  

Counter-irritants: These products include ingredients such as menthol or eucalyptus oil. They create a soothing feeling when you apply the cream. 

There is only limited scientific evidence that topical creams help with the underlying cause of the pain, as they work only to distract you from it. However, these can be beneficial as they are considered generally safe to use at any stage of injury, and safe for long-term use. If you do decide to try a topical cream, check with your health care provider or pharmacist on which product is best for you. 

Here are some tips for using topical creams:

  • Follow the directions on the package.
  • Don’t use on broken skin or a rash.
  • Wash your hands well after using.

Oral Pain Relievers

Unlike topical creams, there is robust scientific evidence that oral pain relievers reduce the pain caused by sore muscles and joints. They are generally divided into two groups:

  • acetaminophen (one brand is Tylenol)
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which includes aspirin, ibuprofen (such as Advil) and naproxen

Both will relieve the pain, however, only the NSAIDs will reduce inflammation (which may be the underlying cause of the pain). A word of caution however, as NSAIDs can also delay healing, so it is best not to take those for the first 48 hours after your injury or initial pain. During that time, it is best to take acetaminophen for the pain. 

All of these medications are generally safe for short-term use, but can cause different side effects with long-term use. In addition, precautions to use include certain medical conditions and interactions with other medications. Be sure to follow the instructions on the label, and talk to your Pharmacist before use to ensure safe consumption based on your personal medical history.

No matter if you choose either topical ointments or oral medications, if your muscle or joint pain persists, you should consider being assessed by a Certified Athletic Therapist as you may have an injury that would require a rehabilitation program.