NY Travel Clinic

Arthritis cream: capsaicin derived from cayenne or red pepper

What is cayenne or red pepper?

Cayenne or red peppers contain a substance called ‘capsaicin’ that is often used as the active ingredient in arthritis cream. Cayenne peppers (also known as red peppers) are small hot chile peppers that are usually used to season food. Capsaicin, which is derived from these hot little red peppers, creates a sensation of body heat when applied to the skin. When used over time as an arthritis pain relief cream, capsaicin reduces the amount of ‘substance P’, a chemical that relays the sensation of pain from the skin to the brain, thus relieving the pain itself.

Scientific evidence

In one famous study, 70 osteoarthritis patients and 31 rheumatoid arthritis patients received either a capsaicin cream or a placebo for four weeks. At the end of the four weeks, the patients who received the capsaicin cream experienced significantly less pain the patients receiving the cream with the placebo ingredient.

Other studies have shown that in many arthritis patients, capsaicin arthritis cream works as well as COX-2 inhibitors for pain relief. This is a significant finding since COX-2 inhibitors have many more potential side effects and come with an increased risk for heart attack or stroke. Capsaicin cream can be a safe alternative to drug treatment, or they can supplement a lower dosage of drug treatments for arthritis, thus reducing the side effects a patient faces.

How it’s used?

Capsaicin is most often used as the active ingredient in a topical cream or gel that can be rubbed on the affected area as needed. Capsaicin cream is mild and usually easily tolerated by most patients. Capsaicin arthritis cream produces a sensation of heat on the skin, and becomes more effective the longer it is used.

In some individuals with severe arthritis pain, capsaicin is applied as a patch that slowly releases the chemical into the patient’s bloodstream at the affected joint. Not everyone can tolerate a capsaicin patch, since the heat generated by a patch is more intense than it is for the cream. For those patients who have stomach trouble from heavy NSAID use or who need to avoid the risks that come with using COX-2 inhibitors, trying a capsaicin patch makes sense.

Side effects and interactions

People who are allergic to peppers should not used capsaicin cream or take it internally or in patch form, as this may cause a severe allergic reaction. Some people will find the heat generated by a capsaicin patch too unpleasant and intense, but many of these patients can benefit from regular use of capsaicin arthritis cream instead.

No studies have been conducted on whether capsaicin has an effect on a fetus when used during pregnancy, so women who are pregnant or might be pregnant should avoid using the cream or the patch.

Capsaicin can take up to two months of regular topical application before relief is noticed, but apart from the sensation of heat and occasional allergic reactions in a very few people, it is well tolerated. Always check with a physician before starting any regular over-the-counter or at-home treatment. A physician will monitor progress and be able to give accurate advice about how to achieve maximum relief when using this topical arthritis cream.