back pain, chronic illness, chronic pain, disability, invisible disability, invisible illness, nerve pain, pain, pain management, pain relief
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Pain News Network: Rating the Pain Creams

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Here’s my most recent column for the Pain News Network

I am a connoisseur of pain creams. My idea of Christmas is when my friend’s mom mailed me a box filled with unopened packages of Bengay (true story). Every morning I slather on a layer of something containing menthol in order to numb my back. Then my cat decides to attack me. Why? Because cats love menthol (also a true story).

Anyway, I have tried many, many, many different topical anesthetics over the years. Here are my experiences with the common and unique brands:

Bengay: The gold standard. Whenever I use this brand, I generally gravitate toward the pain relief massage gel. However, my friend’s mom sent me the regular Bengay.

What, you thought I was kidding? Here’s a picture of my Bengay drawer.

There’s no doubt about it: Bengay is good. However, even the massage gel only contains 2.5 percent menthol, which is the active ingredient that transports your skin to the Arctic. It also has camphor, like what’s used in Vick’s VapoRub, to reduce pain and swelling.

While Bengay is good, it’s not great. Moving on!

Cryoderm has been my go-to for years, because it is, as they claim, “as cold as ice.” It has 10 percent menthol and also contains arnica and boswellia, the former of which has been used for centuries to control bruises and swelling. The latter is a solid anti-inflammatory agent. Cryoderm also makes a number of heat-producing products, one of which I own. I use it on very cold winter days when the temperature makes me want to crawl back into bed. If I put it on during the rest of the year, I prematurely begin the process of menopause.

Anyway, just because I am a big fan of Cryoderm does not mean I haven’t tried other things, such as…

Emu oil: Last year I was at the Big E (only the greatest annual fair in the northeast, where all food is deep fried, even theKool Aid) when, naturally, I gravitated toward a booth that was hawking pain relief products. They all centered around emus. Yes, that flightless bird from Australia. Apparently its oil can be used for anything, from cracked heels to unsightly patches on your skin. I used it for pain purposes, and I found it to be lacking. Not only was it difficult to apply, but it was ineffective. My search continued.

Arnica cream: This took the inactive ingredient in Cryoderm and went whole-hog by making it the active ingredient — nay, the only ingredient. I think this would do a bang-up job of healing something acute, like bruises immediately following an injury. But for chronic, long-term pain, I was left wanting.

Lidocaine patches are available by prescription only, though there are some almost-as-powerful creams and patches online. I only get 10 at a time because they normally are not covered by my insurance.

These things are fantastic. If I could wrap myself in one like a big numb burrito, I would.

It contains 700 mg of lidocaine, which, based on the word’s suffix, you might recognize as a numbing agent similar to novocaine.

You can slap one on for 12 hours at a time; however, like any other sticky product, it can irritate the skin. These are perfect for very bad days, but what’s the next best thing if you can’t get your insurance to cover them?

Stopain. I have to admit, I was skeptical when my grandmother suggested this. Here is a close transcript our conversation:

“Honey, I saw this thing on TV that works on bad backs. You gotta get it.”

For reference, my grandmother is a Jew from Brooklyn in her upper eighties. She wears tracksuits with heels, always has makeup on, and has the best white Jewfro you could possibly imagine. Since friends and relatives are always suggesting pain relief products (which I do appreciate), I didn’t put much stock in what she said.

“Grandma, you can’t always believe that ‘As Seen on TV’ stuff.'”

I didn’t actually say “stuff.” I said another word that starts with “S.”

“You watch your mouth with me, kiddo. Give it a try. C’mon, do it for me. The commercial said it really worked!”

So I bought it to humor her and let it sit in its packaging for about a week once it arrived. Then, when I ran low on my Cryoderm bottle, I gave it a whirl. I was prepared for it not to work, since the Cryoderm has 10 percent menthol and Stopain only has 8 percent, but… I was incredibly surprised.

I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and I think it actually works better than the Cryoderm despite having less menthol. What it lacks in that ingredient, it makes up for in boswellia, arnica, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, and other things I can’t pronounce. It’s a veritable cornucopia of pain-relieving ointments.

So there you have it. Hopefully my experiences have saved you some time, and if not, at least you will smell delightful to any feline companions.


  1. I’ve used lidocaine ointment with my patches (my insurance covers it and last year I hit my catastrophic limit, so I made sure to get all of my refills). I have a neurological problem with my neck, so the ointment goes along my hairline and I cut up the patches and use medical tape to hold on the patches (I have to put it on awkward areas for movement).
    One thing that did help me is Australian Dream/there is another cheaper product with the same active ingredients next to it that also rolls on, so you don’t get it on your fingers. It has histamine in it, so it actually brings blood to the area and warms it up (my doctor recommended it).
    I’ve tried NSAID topical ointments, but I hated them. I couldn’t tell that it helped, no matter how religiously I put it on. I didn’t mind the Salon Pas patches when my knees where aching, but they don’t help my chronic pain.
    The topical stuff is great because I hate not being able to think clearly. And thanks for the reviews on the other things!


  2. I love this post! So cool to see all the options out there. I use a product called Deep Blue that is working well for me. It doesn’t smell as strong as some of the other pain creams I have tried, and it works well for me. Comes in cream or roll-on. Like Sarah’s comment above, it is nice to not get it on the fingers. 🙂


  3. Boswellin helps me, too, orally or topically. Great stuff!
    The Lidocaine patches are good at shutting up my pinched nerves enough to relax the muscle spasms enough to reduce the pinching of the nerves, so can be surprisingly effective at interrupting even epic back flare-ups. The generic work ok, except they won’t stay on, grr.
    Menthol and such helped me a little, back before I was allergic. :/
    I get a lot of help from my compounding pharmacy’s kitchen-sink Rx topical pain cream.


  4. This article literally had me rolling – especially when I started to read about your grandma. I am telling you gave us quite the visual. Trust me, I can see the Jewfro! Have you tried Absorbine Jr … I mean I am sure that it does not add up to the Lidocaine that you mentioned but as a friendly over the counter option how do you feel about its ability to get the job done if you’ve used it of course? I read the article and realized that it was way out of my league but I decided to ask anyway because at this point — if YOU say something works or doesn’t,t I’ll believe you because it’s obvious you and grams have done your research. Absorbine was suggested for my mild lower back pain and its been working pretty good for.


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