Almost 1 in 4 adult Americans (23 percent) have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This is almost 55 million people in total, a number just slightly less than the entire population of the Northeastern U.S. based on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The CDC adds that arthritis tends to occur more often in women than men (23.5 versus 18 percent, respectively) and the older you get, the more likely it is you will develop this particular condition, which has the capability of limiting engagement in everyday activities, as is the case for 43.5 percent of the individuals who have it—many times because of the pain it inflicts.
Arthritis: A painful set of conditions
Healthline explains that, though the two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), there are actually 100 different types of arthritis known to health care professionals today.
All of them are characterized by some level of joint pain, stiffness and swelling, with many of these symptoms most prominent first thing in the morning.
In a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released March 16, 2018, the CDC reported that, of the 54.4 million adult Americans diagnosed with arthritis, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) found that the joint pain is severe for approximately 15 million. This is defined as pain somewhere between a 7 and 10 on a 0–10 scale, with zero representing no pain whatsoever and 10 being pain that is “as bad as it can be.”
Additionally, approximately 28 percent of the individuals responding to the BRFSS telephone survey reported that they had 14 or more physically unhealthy days in the prior month. Another 22 percent admitted to having more than two weeks of mentally unhealthy days during the same timeframe.
One way to decrease the number of these bad days and potentially improve the quality of life for arthritis sufferers is to help them better manage their painful condition. Topicals can sometimes help.
Topicals for area-specific arthritis pain relief
MedicineNet explains that the word “topical” means “pertaining to a particular surface area,” and this type of treatment is generally applied with the goal of easing symptoms relative to the application area.
This is different from other types of treatment methods that, when taken or used, can possibly affect other areas of the body as well.
For instance, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) taken for joint pain can also have negative effects on the kidneys and stomach, and they may even raise blood pressure according to the Mayo Clinic.
If the pain reliever is an opioid, the Mayo Clinic indicates that this category of drug can also “muffle other nerve cell functions, such as your breathing, heart rate and level of alertness,” and these drugs have a high rate of addiction, all of which can result in harm in other ways.
Topicals and the research behind them
Topicals can help users avoid these potential side effects while easing pain at the same time, and research confirms it.
For instance, in early 2018, the journal Postgraduate Medicine published a study that found that, after being treated with topical analgesics, approximately one-half of the participants reported that they were able to stop taking opioids to ease their chronic pain. One-third of the subjects discontinued pain medications completely.
Another 2018 study, this one published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, looked at 28 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 7,372 participants with OA. Some participants engaged in pain treatment therapy using topical NSAIDS and others used topicals with capsaicin. After reviewing all of the data, researchers concluded that they were “equally effective for pain relief in OA.”
Topical safety recommendations
To use these types of topicals safely, the Mayo Clinic recommends washing hands thoroughly after applying them to the painful area or, alternatively, wearing gloves during the application process.
Additionally, if blood-thinning medications are being taken or aspirin allergies exist, it’s best to obtain approval from a health care provider before using topicals that contain salicylates (chemicals derivatives of salicylic acid).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adds that bandages should not be used in the area where a topical has been applied and that topicals should also not be used in conjunction with other heat sources, as both of these approaches can increase burn risks.
However, topical products containing capsaicin have the fewest reported issues in this area.
Arthritis is a medical condition afflicting many Americans, but research has found that topicals can sometimes help, providing relief without the potential side effects associated with other treatment options.