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The 11 best pain relieving creams of 2024, according to pain management experts

We asked pain management experts about the best topical pain relief creams, what to look for, what to avoid and which are the best on the market today

The 11 best pain relieving creams of 2024, according to pain management experts

Muscle pains and strains can get in the way of your daily activities and put a huge dent in your exercise routine. Thankfully, there's a fast-acting option for muscle pain relief: topical analgesics. Topical analgesics, more commonly known as pain relieving creams, can quickly alleviate pain — albeit temporarily — and get you back on your feet and enjoying life again. These powerful pain relievers are great for both acute and chronic pain relief and work by quickly absorbing into the skin where the pain is present to provide immediate relief to sore muscles and strains. The best pain relief creams come in varying consistencies — creams, gels, roll-ons and rubs — and work in different ways, such as creating a numbing cooling sensation or soothing warming sensation, or simply delivering anti-inflammatory ingredients directly where needed without the cooling or warming sensations.

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The effectiveness of these creams can vary greatly depending on the chemical strength, location and type of pain. To better understand what to look for in the top-rated pain relief creams, we consulted with a panel of pain management experts to learn what key ingredients to look for, if cooling or warming creams were better and if there were any ingredients, products or brands to avoid. We took the experts' feedback and evaluated more than 30 topical pain relievers and rated each product based on cost, active ingredients, the cooling or warming sensation experiences, overall value, customer satisfaction, brand reputation and ease of use.

After rigorous analysis, we've identified 11 of the best pain-relieving creams on the market today. But before we get started, we want to point out that these are temporary fixes to pain and soreness and do not address the root cause of chronic pain or severe pain. If your pain persists, please visit your doctor for guidance on treating the source.

Here are the best pain relieving creams of 2024 according to pain management experts

Cost: $12.54 for 4 oz. | Key ingredients: 5% Menthol | Cooling, warming, neutral: Cooling | Scent: Menthol that quickly fades to a neutral scent

Biofreeze Professional Pain Relief Gel is the best overall muscle pain relief cream due to its fast-acting and long-lasting formula. Its cooling menthol and camphor provide immediate relief by interfering with the body’s pain signals, making it an ideal choice for quickly alleviating muscle soreness and discomfort.

One bonus feature of Biofreeze is the inclusion of aloe and vitamin E, which help soften the skin. Customers appreciate the gel's effectiveness, ease of use and warming sensation. As one reviewer noted, "[It's] easy to apply and works fast. It definitely works great for lower back pain." Another reviewer recommended it for sore joints and muscles, praising its minimal, pleasant smell and long-lasting effects.

Pros
  • Fast-acting relief with cooling menthol formula
  • Long-lasting relief for sore muscles, backaches and joint discomfort
  • Menthol scent fades to neutral after application
Cons
  • Some individuals may be sensitive to menthol
  • Formula can be sticky on the skin
  • While it has a neutral scent, it’s not entirely odor-free
$10 at Amazon
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$12 at AvaCare Medical$12 at Vitacost

Cost: $6.88 | Key ingredients: 11% Camphor, menthol | Cooling, warming, neutral: Cooling | Scent: Strong, characteristic scent of camphor and menthol

Tiger Balm Ultra Strength Pain Relieving Ointment is a standout choice for the best budget-friendly muscle pain relief cream because a small amount goes a long way, and at under $7 a jar, this is one powerful, long-lasting rub that won't break the bank. Providing an immediate cooling effect and enduring warming sensation, Tiger Balm's active ingredients, camphor and menthol, work as counterirritants, effectively distracting you from your pain and providing quick relief.

A notable feature of Tiger Balm is its long-lasting effect. “At 11%, these counterirritants produce a soothing surface irritation to the area of application that is strong enough to disrupt the pain signals from arthritis, which allows you to complete your everyday activities with less pain,” says Matthew Cavanaugh, a chiropractor at Cavanaugh Chiropractic Clinic. However, its strong scent and potential to stain clothing may be a drawback for some.

Customers appreciate the pain relief, performance and value. They mention that it eases sore muscles and works exceptionally well. One customer review praised the fast relief, "Within 20 minutes, I forgot the pain was there in the first place." Another customer was pleased with the size for the price, saying, "A little goes a long way. I bought two because I couldn't believe the price."

Pros
  • Immediate cooling effect provides fast-acting relief
  • Enduring warming effect for long-lasting comfort
  • A little goes a long way, making it a cost-effective choice
Cons
  • Can stain clothing and linens due to its oily ingredients
  • Some users may find the gel consistency can clump during application
  • Strong scent might not be appealing to everyone
$7 at Amazon

Cost: $28.49 for 4 oz. | Key ingredients: Wintergreen, camphor, peppermint, blue tansy, matricaria (German Chamomile), helichrysum, ylang ylang and osmanthus essential oils. | Cooling, warming, neutral: Cooling initially, then warming | Scent: Strong, lingering scent

DoTerra's Deep Blue Rub is our pick for the best cooling muscle pain relief cream because its unique blend of essential oils provides an all-natural cooling and warming sensation for immediate, soothing relief. The dual action sensation is particularly effective for soothing sore muscles and joints, using the science of counterirritation to distract pain signals.

The Deep Blue Rub's enticing feature is its combination of natural plant extracts and other powerful ingredients. For instance, wintergreen oil contains a compound similar to aspirin, also known as acetylsalicylic acid. Putting wintergreen oil on your skin over painful areas can help reduce the sensation. Likewise, camphor is easily absorbed into the skin and stimulates nerve endings sensitive to cold, which causes a cooling sensation, relieving pain. These biological compounds provide a comforting sensation to targeted problem areas, sending relief where needed most.

Reviewers praised its texture, performance, quality and pain relief. They mention its tingly feel-good effect, that it allows movement with minimal discomfort and that it works well for quite a while. However, opinions are mixed on smell and value.

Pros
  • Infused with a variety of powerful essential oils
  • Provides a comforting sensation of cooling and warmth to problem areas
  • Moisturizing emollients leave skin soft and non-greasy
Cons
  • The strong scent may linger longer than desired
  • The cost may be higher compared to other muscle rubs
  • The initial cooling sensation may be intense for some users
$31 at Amazon
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$51 at doTerra

Cost: $9.48 for a 3.5 oz tube | Key ingredients: Methyl salicylate, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil | Cooling, warming, neutral: Warming | Scent: Mild, not overpowering menthol scent

Rub A535 Muscle and Joint Heat Cream tops our list as the best extra-strength muscle pain relief cream because of its fast-acting and deep-penetrating formula. Its active ingredients, methyl salicylate, camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol, provide immediate relief on contact to alleviate muscle soreness and discomfort quickly.

What stands out about Rub A535 is that its formula contains 100% more pain-relieving ingredients than regular strength creams, making it a powerful option for those with severe muscle and joint pain.

Despite its strength, the cream has a mild scent and is not overpowering, making it a great choice for daily use. However, it's worth noting that the cream may feel slightly sticky after application and some people may feel the warming sensation is too intense.

Pros
  • Fast-acting quick relief for sore, aching muscles and stiff joints
  • Deep penetration works on contact, delivering concentrated warmth
  • Contains 100% more pain-relieving ingredients than regular strength creams
Cons
  • Some individuals may be sensitive to the active ingredients
  • May feel slightly sticky after application
  • Scent may be unappealing for some people
$20 at Amazon

Cost: $15 | Key ingredients: 16% Menthol, 11% camphor | Cooling, warming, neutral: Cooling | Scent: Mint

If you prefer a maximum-strength pain relief cream but don't love the residue often left behind, consider Icy Hot's Pro Cream. With 16% menthol and 11% camphor, this formula boasts one of the highest concentrations of active ingredients available without a prescription.

The no-mess massaging applicator is equipped with 54 individual nodes to deliver a cooling sensation exactly where you need it — without getting any product on your hands. Even better, the cream absorbs quickly and is non-greasy.

One negative is the scent; due to the high menthol concentration, your nose and eyes may experience some irritation when applying to larger areas. To avoid this, apply in a well-ventilated area away from young children and pets.

Pros
  • Mess-free application
  • Absorbs quickly
  • Non-greasy
Cons
  • Strong scent
  • May cause eye, nose and skin irritation
$10 at Amazon
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$12 at Walmart$17 at CVS Pharmacy

Cost: $34.99 for a 3.5 oz tube | Key ingredients: 1,000 mg organic broad-spectrum hemp extract | Cooling, warming, neutral: Neutral | Scent: Fresh, mild scent of lemongrass and sage 

Humble Brands CBD Comfort Bar stands out as the best pain relief cream with CBD due to its fast-acting, soothing and moisturizing properties. The bar contains 1,000 mg of Organic Broad Spectrum Hemp Extract, known for its potential anti-inflammatory benefits and ability to relieve muscle pain and tension.

Due to CBD's interaction with the body's endocannabinoid system, it can help regulate the immune system and inflammation. According to a 2021 study, using CBD can make pain feel less unpleasant and another trial showed significant reductions in intense pain using CBD oil on the skin. It’s best to seek advice from healthcare professionals to ensure the safety and effectiveness of topical CBD for your specific pain relief.

An admirable characteristic of the Humble Brands CBD Comfort Bar is its vegan and cruelty-free Leaping Bunny certification, which ensures the product is effective and ethically produced. The bar also comes in earth-friendly paperboard packaging that breaks down in two- to five-months.

Customers have praised the Comfort Bar for effectively reducing chronic joint pain. One review stated, “This bar has helped my chronic joint pain (wrist/thumb). A couple of quick swipes, and within a few minutes, the pain is reduced.” Another customer appreciated the design of the bar, saying, “My Comfort Bar is great because it pops up for me to use and glides on, I don't have to get it all over my hands. It has the best smell of any of my CBD products too!”

Pros
  • Soothing and moisturizing
  • Vegan and cruelty-free
  • Biodegradable packaging
Cons
  • Some users find the lemongrass scent reminiscent of a citronella candle
  • Slightly greasy and can potentially stain clothes
$35 at Humble Brands

Cost: $14.95 for a 2 oz container | Key ingredients: Arnica, camphor, menthol, peppermint oils | Cooling, warming, neutral: Cooling | Scent: Strong but pleasant, natural minty scent

Our choice for the best plant-based muscle relief cream is Dr. Bronner's Arnica-Menthol Organic Magic Balm because of its potent blend of organic pain-reliving ingredients. The balm is known for its soothing properties, providing a cooling effect with a refreshing sensation for sore, overworked muscles and joints.

Arnica, one of the key active ingredients, is known to relieve pain. One study on topical herbal pain remedies found that applying arnica gel to areas of pain and strain was equally as effective as ibuprofen for reducing osteoarthritis pain and improving physical function. What’s more, the balm can perform multiple duties as a soothing and protective salve for dry or chapped skin.

Dr. Bronner's is committed to using organic and fair-trade ingredients and works with fair-trade suppliers to implement earth-friendly and organic farming practices that help combat climate change. A clear commitment to sustainability and ethical sourcing makes Dr. Bronner's a feel-good choice.

Customers have praised the balm for its effectiveness in relieving pain, its pleasant smell and the quality of its ingredients. One happy customer stated, “This stuff is fantastic. I carry one in my purse, one in my kids' soccer medical kit, my husband has one in his golf bag and we have one at home. It works like nothing I have ever used. Not greasy and smells yummy!”

Pros
  • Versatile for various uses, including soothing sore muscles and dry skin
  • Non-greasy formula with no residue
  • Effective, natural relief for back pain, joint discomfort and growing pains in children
Cons
  • Small size container
  • Scent, while pleasant to some, may be too intense for others
$15 at Amazon

Cost: $7.94 for a 2.7 oz tube | Key ingredients: 4% lidocaine, aloe vera | Cooling, warming, neutral: Neutral | Scent: Unscented

Aspercreme Pain Relief Cream with Lidocaine won our choice for best pain relief cream with lidocaine due to its fast-acting and highly effective pain-relieving formula. Its active ingredient, lidocaine, provides immediate relief by numbing the application area, making it an ideal choice for quickly alleviating muscle soreness and discomfort. John Gallucci, physical therapist, athletic trainer and chief executive officer of JAG Physical Therapy, particularly likes this product because, “Aspercreme is odor-free, which is a pro for those sensitive to smells and cannot have fragrance on their skin."

A 2024 study showed that using lidocaine cream could help with neck pain, particularly for people with muscle-related pain. According to researchers, this is because the cream can easily reach the neck muscles, providing relief. Research also shows that lidocaine can help ease nerve pain in people with conditions like diabetes-related nerve damage, complex regional pain syndrome, cancer and pain after breast surgery.

Pros
  • Effective numbing formula contains 4% lidocaine
  • Non-greasy, non-staining
  • Unscented for those sensitive to scents
Cons
  • May not be as effective as lidocaine patches for some people
  • May not work on deeper muscle pain
$8 at Amazon
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$7 at Target$11 at Walgreens

Cost: $29.76 for a 12 oz tub | Key ingredients: Emu oil, aloe vera, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), glucosamine | Cooling, warming, neutral: Neutral | Scent: Odor-free

Blue Emu Deep Soothing Original Cream is our pick for the best splurge-worthy pain relief cream because of its potent blend of ingredients and luxurious feel. The cream's emu oil paired with ingredients like aloe vera, Methylsulfonylmethane and glucosamine, quickly absorbs into the skin for effective, fast relief.

Research in the National Library Of Medicine suggests emu oil has anti-inflammatory properties, which, when applied to the skin, can reduce pain and aid in healing inflamed joints and wounds with antibacterial properties. While MSM has been shown to effectively reduce inflammation. However, some people can find MSM irritating when applied to the skin. The cream is made in the U.S. and is covered by some flexible spending and health savings accounts, but check with your policy provider to be sure.

Pros
  • Effective and fast-acting pain relief
  • Absorbs quickly into skin
  • Antibacterial properties
Cons
  • Some people may be allergic to emu oil
  • Risk of side effects such as skin irritation
$28 at Amazon
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$23 at CVS

Cost: $56 for 1.7 oz jar | Key ingredients: Calendula oil, ginger oil, menthol crystals, pineapple enzymes (bromelain), turmeric oil, vitamin E oil | Cooling, warming, nutral: Neutral | Scent: Gentle, minty scent

Cymbiotika Ultimate Pain Balm is the best pain relief cream for sensitive skin due to its powerful blend of natural ingredients and ability to provide fast and targeted relief for pain and discomfort. Yes, it's expensive, but its combination of pain-relieving ingredients makes it a standout choice, especially for those looking for all-natural relief for their sensitive skin.

One of the active ingredients, bromelain, derived from pineapples, has been shown in studies to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, making it effective for pain, soft-tissue swelling and joint stiffness associated with osteoarthritis, particularly in the knee and shoulder. Ginger is also commonly used for conditions such as burns, muscle pain, menstrual cramps, joint stiffness and inflammation.

The Ultimate Pain Balm is formulated to address a bevy of pain-related issues, including sore muscles and joint pain, minor aches, muscle pain and skin-soothing properties. So it’s a versatile and helpful product to have on hand for managing conditions such as tension headaches, menstruation and rheumatoid arthritis.

Pros
  • Provides relief from sore muscles and discomfort
  • Stimulates blood flow and circulation for healing
  • Helps alleviate inflammation-related issues
Cons
  • Available primarily online
  • Expensive
$56 at Cymbiotika

Cost: $19.22 for 5.3 oz tube | Key ingredients: 1% Diclofenac sodium (NSAID) (equivalent to 0.93% diclofenac) | Cooling, warming, neutral: Neutral, slightly cooling | Scent: The gel does not have a strong scent

Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel is our top choice for an arthritis pain relief cream due to its FDA-approved formulation and ability to effectively relieve arthritis pain. The active ingredient, diclofenac sodium, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that temporarily blocks the production of pain-signaling chemicals called prostaglandins, treating pain at the source.

Voltaren Arthritis Pain Gel is an FDA-approved formula that the company claims works two times longer than other over-the-counter products. Not to be overlooked, the gel comes with the Arthritis Foundation Commendation for its "easy-twist cap," so sore and weak joints aren’t aggravated just by trying to use the product.

It is worth noting that there are risks involved with using diclofenac sodium products, including Voltaren. Using too much or layering the product can lead to side effects and health issues, so speak to your doctor before using Voltaren to ensure it’s a good choice and always follow the instructions on the label for use.

Customers have praised the gel for its performance, quality and the absence of a pungent smell. They appreciate that it helps ease pain, reduces aching and throbbing and continues working for hours. One customer review stated, “My wife and I both have arthritis issues (at different locations, however), after immediately applying the gel to those painful areas for a few days we both felt some pain relief using Voltaren.”

Pros
  • FDA-approved prescription strength over-the-counter pain reliever
  • Clinically proven to relieve joint pain, reduce stiffness and improve mobility
  • Cooling effect with isopropyl alcohol to cool the skin, providing additional relief
Cons
  • Delayed relief — may take up to seven days to feel significant relief
  • Frequent application four times per day for optimal results
  • Must be used correctly to avoid side effects and risks
$10 at Amazon
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$11 at Walmart$13 at CVS

What to consider when buying muscle pain relief creams

When shopping for pain relief creams, there are a few things to consider to ensure you choose a product that best suits your needs and preferences.

Active ingredients

The active ingredients in a pain relief cream are crucial as they determine the product's effectiveness. According to Dr. Leia Rispoli, a ddouble-board-certified interventional pain management specialist and physiatrist at DISC Sports & Spine Center, says, "The choice of topical agent really comes down to the source, character and location of pain." She goes on to explain that "those with knee pain secondary to osteoarthritis will likely benefit from an anti-inflammatory topical agent. Those with referred pain from a neuropathy or nerve issue may benefit from a CBD topical agent. Those with generalized muscle aches or cramps may benefit from anti-inflammatory, lidocaine or CBD topical creams/agents."

Formulas that include lidocaine or other effective ingredients, such as methyl salicylate and menthol or camphor and alternative options like arnica and CBD, offer the deepest, fastest backing pain relief. "Each ingredient targets different types of pain (i.e., joint, muscle or nerve), so a combination of various active ingredients is typically beneficial," says Rispoli. It's also important to note that some pain relief creams use salicylates, a type of NSAID, to block a key enzyme in the inflammation process.

Cooling or warming sensation

Pain relief creams can have a cooling or warming effect. Dr. Francisco Contreras, Director of Oasis of Hope Medical Institute, explains that cooling creams often contain ingredients like menthol and camphor, which provide a soothing, cooling sensation. Warming creams, on the other hand, may contain ingredients like capsaicin, which creates a warming sensation that can help to soothe muscle aches and pains. The choice between a cooling or warming cream will depend on your preference and the type of pain you are experiencing.

Cost

The cost of a pain relief cream can vary widely depending on the brand, the active ingredients and the size of the product. When deciding which product to purchase, it's essential to consider your budget and how often you plan to use the cream.

Scent

The scent of a pain relief cream is another crucial factor to consider and one that comes up in many tester and customer reviews. While it may seem trivial, a strong or off-putting scent can make using the cream unenjoyable. Some people may prefer a product with a strong scent, while others may select a fragrance-free option. Be cautious in using products that have fragrances, as they may cause skin irritation, especially for people with sensitive skin.

How do pain relief creams work?

Pain relief creams work by delivering active ingredients directly to the affected area. These ingredients can create sensations like cooling, warming or numbing, which distract from pain signals. Some creams include anti-inflammatory agents like NSAIDs to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. They are effective for providing temporary relief from minor aches and pains associated with conditions such as arthritis, muscle strains or sprains when applied to the affected area.

How we chose the best muscle pain relief cream

In our quest to identify the best pain relief cream, we consulted with renowned experts in the field of pain management. They gave us a deep understanding of the key ingredients to look for in a pain relief cream, the potential side effects and the benefits of using such products.

Armed with expert advice, we researched several products, focusing on active ingredients, scent, cost and whether it offered a cooling or warming effect. We also considered other factors, such as the brand reputation, customer satisfaction, value for money, packaging and any unique features that set the product apart. This rigorous approach has enabled us to provide reliable and trustworthy recommendations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are pain relief creams safe for everyone to use?

While pain relief creams are generally safe for most people, they may not suit everyone. Individuals with preexisting medical conditions, such as skin sensitivities, allergies or chronic health issues, should exercise caution and seek guidance from a health care professional before incorporating these products into their pain management regimen. Furthermore, special consideration should be given to vulnerable groups, including pregnant or breastfeeding women and young children, who may require tailored advice regarding the suitability and safety of pain relief creams.

How often should I apply pain relief creams?

Gendai Echezona, fellowship-trained, triple board-certified anesthesiologist specializing in interventional pain management and lifestyle medicine, says, "Many topical creams can be applied daily or even multiple times a day," adding that, “each product comes with instructions regarding the recommended frequency of use.” However, it's crucial to follow these instructions and not overuse the product. Overuse may increase the risk of side effects or decrease its effectiveness in relieving pain. Ask your doctor for guidance if you have any concerns or questions about how often to use a particular cream.

What key ingredients should I look for in a pain relief cream?

When choosing a pain relief cream, focus on ingredients like menthol for cooling, capsaicin for reducing pain signals, camphor for numbing, lidocaine for local anesthesia and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or diclofenac for inflammation. Arnica reduces swelling and bruising, while CBD offers analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.

Can pain relief creams cause side effects?

Pain relief creams can cause side effects, although these are generally mild and temporary. Some individuals may experience skin irritation like redness or itching. Rarely, allergic reactions may occur, leading to swelling, rash or difficulty breathing. To minimize risk, follow product instructions carefully. Stop using the cream and consult a health care professional if you have adverse reactions.

Meet our expert panel

Francisco Contreras, oncologist, director of Oasis of Hope Medical Institute

Leia Rispoli, double-board-certified interventional pain management specialist and physiatrist

Gendai Echezona, fellowship-trained, triple board-certified anesthesiologist specializing in interventional pain management and lifestyle medicine

John Gallucci, physical therapist, athletic trainer and chief executive officer of JAG Physical Therapy

Matthew Cavanaugh, chiropractor at Cavanaugh Chiropractic Clinic

Zeeshan Ahmad, pain and spine specialist at OSF HealthCare