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What are Anti-Inflammatory Creams and How Do They Work?

Pain as a result of joint inflammation is a common complaint which affects most people at some stage in their lives. A particular type of treatment for inflammation-related discomfort that is rising in popularity is anti-inflammatory topicals. These are creams, balms or gels formulated with ingredients to help reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. They can be used to ease sprains, strains, muscle aches and inflammation and also help speed up post-workout muscle recovery.

Anti-inflammatory topicals often contain over-the-counter painkillers or natural anti-inflammatory ingredients and are easy and convenient to use. It is also believed that topical anti-inflammatories have fewer side effects than oral anti-inflammatory medicine. But are they actually effective, and which type of anti-inflammation topical treatment should you choose? Stick with us to find out everything you need to know.

What is Joint Inflammation?

Inflammation is the result of an increase in fluids and infection-fighting white blood cells to a site of injury or infection in the body. This immune response increases the blood flow to the area and fluids can leak into tissues, causing swelling, warmth and redness. Inflammation is a the body’s natural defensive biological process, but can result in irritation, prolonged swelling and cartilage loss if it is chronic – such as in the case of autoimmune disorders like Rheumatoid Arthritis.

What Does Inflammation Feel Like?

There are a several indicators of joint inflammation. These can include:

  • A painful joint
  • Swelling of the area
  • Redness
  • Stiffness
  • Warmth
  • Some difficulty moving the joint

You may only have one or two of these symptoms when suffering from inflammation. However, inflammation can also result in a general unwell feeling, with symptoms including:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • High temperature
  • Aching muscles

If you have any of the above symptoms, particularly localised symptoms, inflammation may be present and you may benefit from the use of a topical anti-inflammatory balm or cream.

What are Anti-Inflammatory Topical Painkillers?

Anti-inflammatory creams and balms are a type of painkiller that can be applied topically to a specific area of the body to alleviate muscle pains, arthritis, sprains and strains. Topical anti-inflammatories can contain medicine such as ibuprofen and Tylenol (NSAIDs – Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) or natural compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD).

Uses for Anti-Inflammatory Balms and Creams

Scientific studies have shown that topical anti-inflammatories can be successful in alleviating inflammation and pain associated with arthritis. Additionally, they may help conditions such as bursitis, sprains, strains, plantar fasciitis and shin splints. As a result, anti-inflammatory topicals are often popular with athletes and arthritis sufferers

Do Topical Anti-Inflammatory Painkillers Actually Work? 

Yes – topical anti-inflammatory creams work for acute muscular pain and inflammation, as long as the product reaches the affected tissue in adequate concentration to result in an anti-inflammatory effect. If this occurs, significant levels of pain relief can be experienced by topical anti-inflammatory pain relievers.  

You can boost the effectiveness of your cream or balm by rubbing it into the skin in a circular motion until the majority is absorbed. Massaging of the skin increases blood flow to the area which intensifies absorption of the product. Studies have shown that the pain-relieving benefits of anti-inflammatory creams and balms are significantly maximised when massaged into the desired area.


Natural anti-inflammatories such as CBD work in a different manner to NSAIDs whilst reducing pain and inflammation. Cannabidiol interacts with the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) which is a complex system which helps to regulate our sleep, mood, appetite, immunity and other essential biological functions . CBD binds with receptors of the ECS – these are found all over the body – and reduces the release of inflammatory chemicals. Many people opt for CBD balm and creams over NSAIDs thanks to their effectiveness and often natural, organic ingredients. Cannabidiol is derived from the cannabis plant, but is entirely legal in the UK and non-intoxicating.


When applied to the skin, the balm is absorbed. It then travels deeper into the tissue to the site of inflammation and, in the case of NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, works by inhibiting the effects of enzymes that are involved in producing prostaglandin, a chemical which promotes tissue pain and inflammation. Thus, anti-inflammatory creams are most beneficial when the inflamed joint is quite close to the skin, or not covered by thick muscle tissue, enabling easier and faster access to the site of inflammation.

How to Use

Apply the topical anti-inflammatory cream to the affected area. Gently massage the cream into the skin, and then wash your hands after use to ensure you don’t transfer the cream to sensitive areas of the body. You can usually apply topical anti-inflammatories up to 4 times a day for pain relief, but individual products vary so be sure to read the specific advice for your cream.

Creams and balms formulated to treat inflammation can usually be used until pain subsides or as part of a long-term management strategy for chronic ailments such as arthritis.

Possible Side Effects

Studies indicate that anti-inflammatory creams and balms can produce fewer side effects that their oral counterparts. The reason for this is that topical products are applied directly to the skin at the site of inflammation which results in a lower concentration of anti-inflammatories in your system. This especially reduces the risk of unwanted gastro-intestinal symptoms that can be associated with oral anti-inflammatories.

However, anti-inflammatory side effects can still occur with topical gels and creams. These may include: 

  • Skin irritation where the cream is applied, such as a rash
  • Allergic reaction
  • Increased skin sensitivity to light

If you experience any side effects while using a topical anti-inflammatory, stop using right away and consult your GP.


Anti-inflammatory creams, balms and gels can be very effective in providing pain relief from muscle aches, pains and inflammation, particularly is the pain is localised and near the skin. Topical anti-inflammatories are easy to use and are less likely to produce side effects than orally ingested anti-inflammatories.   Choose from effective over-the-counter NSAIDs or opt for natural pain-relieving creams such as the intensely soothing Relief CBD Joint and Muscle Cream.


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