Ever taken a course of anti-inflammatory tablets for a nagging sports injury and been left with a nasty tummy ache? NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) have earned the descriptive nickname of “gut burners” for a reason. Some people just can’t stomach ibuprofen. For a few people, it can burn and even ulcerate the lining of the stomach. But what’s the alternative?
Enter: Anti-inflammatory gel.
In case you’re wondering, we’re not here to spruik any particular type of pharmaceutical product here. Instead, we’re discussing the uses and advantages of over-the-counter topical anti-inflammatory gel as an effective means for pain management. Commonly known brands in Australia, such as Voltaren, contain diclofenac, an NSAID similar to ibuprofen which reduces substances in the body that cause pain and inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory gel has been around for almost ten years now, but for some, it’s an unsung hero. However, it is only useful for certain conditions on particular parts of the body. Anti-inflammatory gel has been approved in the U.S. to treat osteoarthritis in “joints amenable to topical treatment, such as the knees and those of the hands” with evidence showing that it “provides clinically meaningful analgesia”.
This raises the question: what is an amenable joint? One that cooperates? Not really. Probably a better phrase would be “accessible joint”. Anti-inflammatory gel has to be able to penetrate the tissues, so the problem areas mustn’t lie too far away from the skin surface. The following conditions are therefore suitable candidates for anti-inflammatory gels:
- plantar fasciitis
- patellar tendinitis
- Achilles tendinitis
- ITB syndrome
- shin splints
- ligament strains
- acute muscle strains
The verdict is not 100% clear about the use of anti-inflammatory gel for back pain. Although it is accepted that anti-inflammatory gels work best on superficial areas, there is some proof that they can help with pain coming from deep inside the spine.
Bottom line: it doesn’t hurt to try; there is almost no downside to giving it a go.
Why anti-inflammatory gel and not tablets?
Short bursts of oral anti-inflammatory medication are relatively harmless in healthy human beings. However, take large oral doses over the long-term and the results can be extremely negative. Your entire circulatory system is pumped with a large dose of a drug that most of your body doesn’t need.
Conversely, when applying a topical, pain relief gel, the medication only goes where it is needed. And because it penetrates through the skin far less medication reaches the bloodstream. In fact, only a fraction of what you would normally get from oral medication is absorbed into the blood.
All medications carry risks, though, and anti-inflammatory gel should only be used as directed. The most common adverse reaction is skin irritation in some 7% of individuals using this type of treatment.
When anti-inflammatory gel doesn’t work
Anti-inflammatory gel will only work where there is local inflammation. That sounds like common sense, but we often think an area is inflamed when it is not, or that a particular area is the cause of pain, when it is not.
Sometimes neck pain or lower back pain may be stemming from muscular issues or be pain that is referred from elsewhere. In these instances, topical gel probably won’t do much good. Once again, even if inflammation was the cause of the pain, if the pain is coming from an area deep in the body (not superficially) it will be difficult for the gel to penetrate to the source.
As with all medical treatments, it’s best that individuals discuss the use of anti-inflammatory gels with their pharmacist or doctor before commencing use, particularly for severe pain.
Of course, there are other liniments, heat rubs and lubricants used for pain relief that don’t contain anti-inflammatory medication. These are often used by therapists performing certain types of massage to increase circulation and ease tension. Your choice of either topical anti-inflammatory gels or heat inducing liniments all depends on the condition and the preferred treatment.
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