Can Capsaicin Cream Ease Your Pain?

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects, Tips & More

Red chili peppers
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The chemical that gives hot chili peppers their kick, capsaicin is found in creams, ointments, gels, lotions, and transdermal skin patches. When applied topically, capsaicin cream is thought to provide pain relief by changing the way your body processes pain.

Why Do People Use Capsaicin Cream?

When applied to the skin, capsaicin appears to cause local densensitization after a period of initial irritation.

Capsaicin cream is said to relieve pain resulting from a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Back pain
  • Gout
  • Joint pain, such as knee pain
  • Migraines
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Postherpetic neuralgia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Shingles
  • Tendonitis

The Benefits of Capsaicin Cream: Can It Really Help?

A number of preliminary studies suggest that capsaicin cream applied topically may offer a variety of health benefits. 

1) Postherpetic Neuralgia After Shingles

In a review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2013, researchers sized up six previously published clinical trials (involving 2,073 participants) examining the effectiveness of a capsaicin 8 percent patch in people with chronic neuropathic pain (pain caused by damage to nerves, either from injury or disease). 

The report revealed that the patch provided greater pain relief than low concentration (0.04 percent) capsaicin in two types of pain: pain after shingles and HIV-associated nerve pain.

An 8 percent capsaicin patch is FDA-approved for the management of postherpetic neuralgia pain. The high concentration patch is applied under local anaesthetic by a medical professional in a clinic or hospital setting, due to the initial pain and burning sensation.

2) Muscle Pain and Neuropathic Pain 

For a report published in BMJ in 2004, scientists found evidence that capsaicin is significantly better than a placebo for musculoskeletal and neuropathic pain. For neuropathic pain, the percentage of people reporting at least a 50 percent reduction in pain after four weeks was 57 percent for capsaicin (0.075 percent concentration) and 42 percent for the placebo. In musculoskeletal conditions, the response rate after four weeks was 38 percent for capsaicin (0.025 percent concentration) and 25 percent for the placebo.

A previous review had found that repetitive use of a 0.075 percent capsaicin cream or a single patch of 8 percent capsaicin improved neuropathic pain. In a more recent study (published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2012), researchers reviewed previously published studies and found there was insufficient data to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of 0.075 percent capsaicin for neuropathic pain. 

3) Osteoarthritis

In a review published in Rheumatology in 2011, scientists evaluated previously published trials on the use of complementary treatments for osteoarthritis.

They found "consistent evidence" that capsaicin gel was effective in managing osteoarthritis pain. However, the review's authors noted that the lack of rigorous clinical trials.

Related: Remedies for Osteoarthritis Pain

4) Low Back Pain

For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2014, researchers sized up previously published trials evaluating the effectiveness of capsaicin cream or plasters in people with low back pain. The authors found that capsaicin produced more favorable results than a placebo for chronic low back pain. While they found no clear evidence for acute low back pain, they noted that a lack of high-quality trials. 

Related: All-Natural Approach to Back Pain

Possible Side Effects

Studies have reported local adverse skin reactions (such as a burning sensation, pain, and skin redness) in the early period of treatment that subside after one to two weeks of treatment. Higher concentrations may cause pain, inflammation, coughing, and skin blisters.

Transient high blood pressure has been noted, particularly with higher concentrations. ​If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, consult your doctor before using topical capsaicin. 

If you have a chronic nerve condition, consult your healthcare provider before using capsaicin cream. 

The safety of long-term, repeated applications of high concentration capsaicin isn't known.

A few tips:

  • Wear gloves when applying capsaicin cream. Avoid contact with eyes and mucous membranes, and wash hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Capsaicin shouldn't be applied on open wounds or broken skin.
  • The safety of capsaicin cream in pregnant or nursing women hasn't been established.

The Bottom Line

If you live with pain, you know all too well how difficult it can be to manage. While not everyone responds to capsaicin cream, it may help some people manage pain in conjunction with standard treatment. If you're considering trying it, speak to your healthcare provider to see whether it's appropriate for you and to know what to expect at the recommended dose.  


De Silva V, El-Metwally A, Ernst E, et al. Evidence for the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines in the management of osteoarthritis: a systematic review. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2011 May;50(5):911-20. 

Derry S, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin (low concentration) for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12;(9):CD010111. 

Derry S, Sven-Rice A, Cole P, Tan T, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin (high concentration) for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Feb 28;(2):CD007393. 

Oltean H, Robbins C, van Tulder MW, Berman BM, Bombardier C, Gagnier JJ. Herbal medicine for low-back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Dec 23;(12):CD004504.

Richards BL, Whittle SL, Buchbinder R. Neuromodulators for pain management in rheumatoid arthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Jan 18;1:CD008921. 

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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