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Topical Creams Versus Transdermal Treatments. What You Need to Know.

Topical Creams Versus Transdermal Treatments. What You Need to Know.

A staggering number of individuals experience some form of chronic pain. In fact, while pain treatment rarely receives top billing in medical stories, it's estimated that more people suffer from ongoing pain than from cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined.

Scientific research has resulted in a number of compounds capable of providing relief for individuals with chronic pain, but the methods of delivery for these substances have nearly as great as an impact on their efficacy as their chemical makeup. Two possible routes for pain relief delivery that have recently received significant attention are transdermal application and topical application, both of which work via direct application to the skin.

Pain Relief Creams vs. Conventional Pain Relief Medicines

When many people think of taking medicine, the first images that come to mind are pills to be swallowed and shots to be injected. However, for thousands of years people have also sought natural pain relief through skin absorption. For example, mustard plasters provided relief from chest congestion, while belladonna plasters acted as analgesics.

Addressing pain (and other conditions) by using treatments placed directly on the skin has several advantages over more conventional delivery methods like oral intake or hypodermic injections. For example, they can often provide effective pain management with fewer effects on the central nervous system and with a less burdensome drug regimen. This approach also avoids the loss of potency often associated with passing through the liver before reaching a targeted area of the body. While not all ingredients are well-suited for skin application (for example, some may not be able to penetrate the skin or may cause irritation), the potential for those that are is evidenced by the increasing number of medical patches being introduced. While many people are already familiar with nicotine patches, many other patches are currently being developed, including many intended to address pain. With the hope of continuous multi-day delivery from a single patch, deeper tissue penetration than previously achieved, and surprisingly fast onset of relief, patches clearly illustrate the power of transdermal treatment.

Topical Pain Relief Creams Only Treat What They Touch

Even a quick glance at a drug store shelf makes it obvious that there is an abundance of gels and ointments claiming to provide pain relief once applied. Whether the goal is an arthritis pain relief cream, a sciatica pain relief cream or a more general muscle pain relief cream, there seems to be a product for every concern. But are all pain relief creams and gels created equal? When it comes to identifying the best pain relief cream, it's important to understand the difference between those that claim to be "topical" and those that are "transdermal."

Topical treatments target the specific site of application. The majority of over-the-counter medicinal creams and lotions fall into this category. For example, calamine lotion can be used to reduce discomfort from a bug bite, while aloe vera can be used to soothe sunburned skin. Spray analgesics may even be used to temporarily numb a painful cut or other injured areas on the surface of the skin. Only relatively small amounts of the active ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream and, even those promoted as general pain relief options typically only produce a localized effect, limiting the impact to areas directly touched by the product.

Transdermal Pain Relief Creams Go Deeper

Transdermal treatments, on the other hand, are absorbed through the skin and transmitted through the bloodstream to areas of the body away from the original point of application. Nicotine patches are perhaps the most familiar example of a transdermal application. Although the patch is worn externally, the nicotine moves through the skin and is experienced systemically. This convenient, controlled dosage of nicotine is then able to help ward off cravings and help individuals progress toward giving up cigarettes and other nicotine-containing products all together.

Because of their ability to deliver body-wide benefits, transdermal delivery of certain ingredients has been particularly promising for the treatment of chronic pain, which often is rooted in conditions far beneath the skin's surface

Transdermal Treatment Can Relieve Osteoarthritis Pain

Affecting over 30 million Americans, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Unfortunately, several of the most frequently used drugs used to address osteoarthritis pain, including NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors, have recently been tied to significant cardiovascular risk. In response to these discoveries, increasing attention has been turned to finding more natural pain relief for arthritis, as well as developing better delivery methods, including transdermal applications. The results have been promising to date and suggest that it may be possible for all natural pain relief creams to help alleviate discomfort due to arthritis.

For example, studies related to osteoarthritis of the knee have shown that glucosamine and chondroitin applied to the skin can provide greater pain relief than a placebo preparation, with results evident at both the four-week and eight-week mark.

The Future of Transdermal Treatments

Transdermal pain relief options are expected to increase over the next several years. With greater efficacy than topical treatments alone and unique advantages compared to traditional oral and injectable approaches, it's likely that the market will continue to see additional transdermal products introduced for everything from reducing discomfort from cancer treatment to providing all natural pain relief for dogs and other pets. (Pet pain management is an area of growing interest to many animal lovers.)

With so many pain relief options available, finding a regimen that works can feel overwhelming. Understanding the differences between major delivery methods (such as transdermal treatments vs. topical treatments) can help simplify the decision-making and can ultimately make the difference between selecting a product that simply feels nice on the surface and one that penetrates down to the problem.