Sore Muscle Rubs: Treatment, Recovery, Remedies, Relief.
In Part One of a three-part Winter Sports Series, Nurse Mia Ross takes a look at the active ingredients in popular analgesic pain-relieving muscle rubs and gives recommendations for their use.
While perusing the menu of spa options at a mountain resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I noticed the most expensive massage offered was called the “Sore-Muscle Massage.” Sounds good since the majority of visitors to this resort have sore muscles. Being one of them, I inquired about the details and was told that the Sore-Muscle Massage is a Swedish massage with added arnica cream. Immediately, a red flag was drawn. Does arnica, a flowering herb, relieve sore muscle pain and is it worth the extra $10.00? Could I find something less expensive at the drug store that might work better? Spoiler alert: Yes. But you have to know which one to choose.
Salicylate (Aspercream) or Methyl Salicylate (Icy Hot, Bengay): Aspirin is made from salicylates and this ingredient is said to relieve pain from various musclo-skeletal conditions by increasing blood flow to the affected area. However in 2011, the Cochrane Collaboration did a review of current research on Salicylate-containing products and found minimal supporting evidence. Studies were largely antiquated or lacked scientific integrity, but the quality studies showed there was no significant relief of muscle pain. The authors of the Cochrane review recommend against using topical salicylate creams, gels or foams, though each of these products are safe.
Topical NSAIDs (Voltaren): The same active ingredient (i.e. ibuprofen, Motrin, Advil) that you are accustomed to swallowing for pain and inflammation is available topically. Both oral and topical varieties reduce pain in sore muscles. However, when compared to oral NSAIDs, topicals are not as readily absorbed into the bloodstream which means there is minimal systemic effect. Despite this, topical NSAIDs may be the best option for adults who cannot tolerate the oral form. If you live in the U.S., you’ll need a prescription for Voltaren before you hit the slopes.
Capsaicin: This compound, found in chili peppers, works differently. Instead of trying to reduce inflammation or increase blood flow, Capsaicin is a “counterirritant.” By irritating the nerve fibers in the skin, the nerves become inflamed which inhibits pain transmission. Basically, your nerves are fooled! Because of this, Capsaicin has been deemed more beneficial for people with nerve pain than those with musculoskeletal concerns (meaning it isn’t the best choice for sore muscles). Either way, it’s best to avoid if you have sensitive skin, as reactions can be severe.
Arnica: The culprit for this entire article! Overall, there have been no legitimate studies to support that Arnica is worth your $10.00. The research shows that Arnica has not lived up to its claims for reducing muscle pain and inflammation. There is a small amount of data that shows an effect on arthritis pain, but this is very different than muscle pain caused by a day on the slopes.
So use the money that you saved on the arnica rub to buy yourself a movie ticket. Bring an ice pack and compression wrap. Elevate your sore legs on the chair in front of you (as long as it’s empty!) and just rest.
Be on the lookout for Part Two of my Winter Sports Series. Until then, be well and remember to drink some extra water.