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Are Pain Relief Creams Better Than Pills?

Are Pain Relief Creams Better Than Pills?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about pills not being the best solution for relieving pain. Just Google adverse effects of ibuprofen and you’ll see a barrage of articles about the negative impact taking pills can have on your body. With all the commotion, many people are beginning to ask, “Are topical creams better than pills?” The answer is not quite black and white. So, let’s take a closer look at what you should know.

First, it’s pretty important to understand the differences in how these two delivery methods relieve pain.


Very common (10% or more): Nausea (up to 57%), vomiting (up to 22%), flatulence (up to 16%), diarrhea (up to 10%)

When you take a pill, the medicine inside needs to navigate through your digestion system and then through your body until it reaches the exact spot in pain.

Imagine you’re at water park with a friend. Now think about jumping into one of those big waterslides. You twist and turn down the maze of tubes before splashing into a big wave pool. You ignore that gross floating Band-Aid next to you and go searching for your friend among the sea of people.

Taking a pill is kind of like that. When you swallow a pill, it is digested or absorbed through your gut. As it enters your body’s bloodstream, the medication more or less has to find its way to the spot of pain. But unlike you in the waterpark, the medication in the pill has no idea what its friend, pain, looks like. That means the medication is really affecting many areas of your body.

It would be like entering that wave pool with a blindfold on and having to ask every person if they were your friend.

The point is, it is impossible for a pill to target the exact spot that’s in pain. It has to work its way through your body to do it. Often that’s ok, but it’s also the reason for many side effects caused by taking pills.

Check this out. Hop over to Drugs.com and just look at the potential side effects of ibuprofen. You’ll notice that are a bunch of side effects that relate to the systems in the body that have to process the ibuprofen, like gastrointestinal. Here’s a quick example:

Very common (10% or more): Nausea (up to 57%), vomiting (up to 22%), flatulence (up to 16%), diarrhea (up to 10%)

If you know the exact area of your body that is in pain, like your back for instance, you may want to take a closer look at topical solutions. Creams, rubs, and ointments do have an advantage here. Because you apply them directly to the area that needs the medication, you can minimize exposure to the rest of your body.

Medication is great, but if parts of your body don’t need it, then why introduce it there. It’s kind of like, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”


Tick, tock, tick, tock. The clock starts once you decide to apply topical cream or swallow a pill. Consider these two questions while deciding between the two:

  1. When will I feel the effects?
  2. When will the effects fade away?

It’s all about the ingredients. The ingredients in a cream or pill should give you an idea of how fast you will see relief and how long it should last.

If you are looking at a cream, turn over the package and check out what’s listed on the label. Many creams contain a fast acting ingredient like Menthol to help relieve pain in a minute or two.

Pills can vary in terms of how fast you will feel the effects and when they will fade away. And it’s hard to estimate how quickly they will work, partly because everyone’s body is a bit different in terms of how fast you can process medication.

And before you decide on cream versus pill, you should consider the type of pill. Is it over the counter or prescription? Prescription pills will typically pack a bigger punch. Plus, you have the added benefit of having direct access to a pharmacist or doctor to discuss how fast you should be feeling the effects.


With any action there’s always a risk of an opposite and equal reaction. And both pills and creams are no exception. But the level of risk is definitely different between the two.

Pills can have side effects that are mostly dependent on two things.

  1. Ingredients
  2. Dose

These two variables are important to understand before taking any pill. You really should talk to your doctor to get to know the ingredients and determine recommended dosage, especially for prescription medication. Because pills have direct access to your entire body, the risks can be high and in many cases hard to pinpoint. Some common side effects could be nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and skin rash. For more common side effects check out this article.

Creams and rubs are typically a bit less risky and often have minimal possible side effects. Because a topical pain cream is applied on the skin, you can test a small amount to check of reactions before you go all in. Side effects are typically limited to stinging of the skin, dry skin, skin irritation. For more common side effects check out this article.


Sorry. It’s just not that simple. Choosing between a pill and a cream is something that you just have to decide on your own by looking at the differences. And when in doubt, don’t be shy and talk to a pharmacist or a doctor.