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Topical analgesics introduction


This section of Bandolier is dedicated to pulling together the available, and growing, evidence about topical analgesics. Issues around wound infiltration and use of local anaesthetics in surgery will not be part of this section. Rather, the section will cover analgesics that are rubbed onto the skin to produce pain relief.

For all topical analgesics there is an element of unknown territory. The most important evidence will come from systematic reviews and meta-analyses of randomised trials, where the three critical criteria of quality, validity, and size are met. Other information may be important, though.


The first thing needed is a classification of topical analgesics. The problem we face is that of a number of possible definitions for rubefacients and NSAIDs, capsaicin and local anaesthetics. The dimensions are:

  1. Molecular structure and pharmacology. Some compounds, like salicylates, are related pharmacologically to aspirin and NSAIDs, but in the form that they are often used in topical products (often as amine derivatives) their principal action is to act as skin irritants (called counter irritants in many texts, to 'counter' pain). By contrast topical NSAIDs act by penetrating deep into underlying structures to inhibit cyclooxygenase enzymes responsible for development of inflammatory processes.
  2. Concentration. The concentration of components of topical analgesics varies considerably, and the dose-response relationships are largely unknown. For some agents, like capsaicin, concentration may define prescription or OTC (over-the-counter, no prescription needed) status.
  3. A number of products contain several agents that may or may not be active in one or other ways.
  4. Availability with or without prescription.
  5. Different definitions are used. For instance, PACT (UK prescribing data) combines "rubefacients and other topical anti-rheumatics" and includes topical nonsteroidal drugs, and thus mirrors the definition of the BNF (British National Formulary). The BNF defines the properties of a rubefacient, without defining what a rubefacient actually is, so our definition here is that "rubefacients act by counter-irritation".
  6. The Royal Society of Medicine gives a definition thus: "Agents are also called counter-irritant. The name derives from the fact that these agents cause a reddening of the skin by causing the blood vessels of the skin to dilate, which gives a soothing feeling of warmth. The term counter-irritant refers to the idea that irritation of the sensory nerve endings alters or offsets pain in the underlying muscle or joints that are served by the same nerves. See capsaicin; capsicum oleoresin; choline salicylate; ethyl salicylate; glycol salicylate; methyl salicylate; menthol; salicylic acid; turpentine oil."

The Pharmaceutical Journal helpfully distinguishes three main categories of topical analgesics, to which we will add a fourth:

Bandolier therefore sought reviews of:

  1. Topical rubefacients in acute and chronic pain states (but not stings or sunburn), and to include all salicylate products. The intention will be to include all products listed as rubefacients or counter irritants by Martindale, but with a prior intent to perform a sensitivity analysis for salicylates alone, and other products alone where there are sufficient trials or numbers of patients in a given pain condition. Movelat contains salicylic acid, though its status is as a heparinoid. Again, a sensitivity analysis for this product alone is planned.
  2. Topical NSAIDs in acute pain conditions, like strains and sprains.
  3. Topical NSAIDs in chronic pain conditions, like arthritis.
  4. Topical capsaicin in chronic pain conditions. Our prior definition here is based on concentration, prescription status, on being a single active agent, and possibly on mode of action.
  5. Topical local anaesthetics in acute and chronic pain conditions.


This has a special complexity because of the number of different chemicals that can be a rubefacient. Definitions according to Martindale are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Definitions and uses of some rubefacients

Glucosamine sulphate Given in the treatment of rheumatic disorders
chondroitin sulphate DNS (did not state)
camphor Applied externally, camphor acts as a rubefacient and mild analgesic
peppermint oil DNS
Hydroxyethylsalicylate (2- Hydroxyethylsalicylate or glycol salicylate) salicylic acid drivative used in topical rubefacient preparations
Escin from horse chestnut; mixture of saponins
diethylamine salicylate Salicylic acid derivative used topically in rubefacient preparations
Copper salicylate DNS
comfrey Comfrey has been applied topically in the treatment of inflammatory disorders
poison ivy Contain irritant poisons
marsh tea DNS
Triethylamine salicylate (same as triethalonamine salicylate? also known as trolamine salicylate) salicylic acid drivative used in topical rubefacient preparations
Copper salicylate DNS
Trolamine salicylate salicylic acid drivative used in topical rubefacient preparations
Benzydamine DNS
Benzydamine hydrochloride NSAID
Benzydamine salicylate DNS
Salicylic acid Mild irritant
dexpanthenol (pantothenic acid analogue) No accepted therapeutic uses in human medicine
heparin Anticvoagulant and found in topical preps for various inflammatory disorders
dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO) exceptional solvent properties. Anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory properties
Movelat (prep) Heparinoid containing salicylic acid
Intralgin (prep) Benzocaine and salicylamide
Benzocaine Local anaesthetic
salicylamide Salicylic acid derivative applied topically in rubefacient preparations
Salonpas (prep) Methyl salicylate, menthol, camphor, benzyl nicotinate, glycol salicylate
Methyl salicylate Salicylic acid derivative that is irritant to the skin and is used topically in rubefacient preparations
menthol Vasodilation when applied to the skin causing sensation of coldness followed by analgesic effect
benzyl nicotinate used topically in rubefacient preparations

Topical NSAIDs

Topical NSAIDs for pain relief remain one of the more controversial subjects in analgesic practice. In some parts of the world their use is regarded as sensible, with adequate evidence for their use. In other parts of the world they are regarded as little more than placebo, with any effect due just to the rubbing. In yet others, their use is almost unknown.

This will be about more than just their efficacy in clinical trials, because to fully appreciate the evidence information will be required about skin penetration, tissue concentrations, and blood levels, particularly to demonstrate differences between oral and topical administration (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Evidence needed for topical NSAIDs

Other agents

Information on other agents is likely to be sparse.

Topical loacal anaesthetics

Local anaesthetics are not frequently used, other than EMLA cream.


The prime aim is to locate and appraise good quality evidence on topical analgesics, for practitioners and patients to use with wisdom.