A Chili Pepper Cure: Capsaicin For Leg Pain

If you’re looking for a natural remedy for leg pain, consider capsaicin patches.

Capsaicin is the active component that gives hot peppers, including cayenne and jalapeno peppers, their famous heat. Although powdered forms of this natural remedy are available, many people find patches or creams helpful for leg pain.

Capsaicin patches work best for helping to reduce leg pain after surgery, helping with any pain resulting from neuropathy, which is a tingling or numbness sensation in the extremities, or generic strains and sprains resulting from injuries. Capsaicin may also help alleviate muscle aches, including from overuse or arthritis.

How does capsaicin work?

Pain results from nerves signaling to the brain that tissue has been damaged. Capsaicin interferes with this process by 1st intensifying the signals and then decreasing them, according to WebMD. It does this by affecting with the way nerves communicate with the spinal cord and elsewhere in the body.

Because of the way capsaicin affects the body, people using the patches sometimes experience worse pain before finding relief. The initial increase becomes less over time as the body becomes used to the compound.

How is it used?

Capsaicin patches are easy to use and widely available from drug stores. Stronger doses are also available by prescription. Because of the higher capsaicin concentration, these prescription medications tend to provide longer-lasting pain relief.

To use the drug store version, simply peel off the packaging and place on the affected area. If you’d like to treat a large area, consider buying capsaicin gel and covering with a bandage.

To avoid the ointment coming into contact with your hands, use a cotton ball or swab during application. Because capsaicin irritates skin, avoid covering any cuts, scrapes, or sunburned areas with the product.

Creams can be applied to the skin as frequently as 4 times per day. Side effects include burning or itching the 1st few times the ointment is applied, but the skin gradually grows accustomed to the active ingredient and this effect diminishes over time.

Be sure to wash the hands thoroughly after applying the cream or patch, since any capsaicin that touches the eyes or nose will result in a painful burning sensation. Although some preparations begin working relatively quickly, capsaicin sometimes takes as long as 2 months to offer pain relieving benefit, according to WebMD.

Although the benefits may come on slowly, they tend to be long-lasting. Pain relief can last as long as 8 hours for over-the-counter medications, although some prescription formulas last up to 3 months after a 1-hour application. The compound is generally viewed as safe, but begin with small amounts to avoid any unpleasant side effects.

What’s the proof?

Many studies have shown capsaicin’s pain reducing benefits, although most of those studies have focused on neuropathy.

Researchers at Oxford University reviewed 9 studies evaluating the use of capsaicin in 1,600 patients experiencing peripheral neuropathy disorders, which can be caused from cancer treatment, arthritis, and diabetes, among other conditions.

For the 1,600 patients included in the studies, 4 in 10 patients experienced relief from pain after applying capsaicin cream. In 7 of the studies reviewed, patients applied the cream up to 4 times daily over the course of 12 weeks. In that study, 41% of patients found relief varying from “substantial” to “improvement.”

In the remaining 2 studies reviewed, patients took 1 high dose daily of cream through a patch they left on for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. 39% of patients reported pain relief of 33%.

Another review of studies published in the Journal of Pain Research found that 57% of patients with neuropathy experienced “significant” relief with capsaicin, and 38% of those with musculoskeletal pain found relief. Researchers said many people find it difficult to commit to using the therapy because of the initial burning sensation, although that diminished over time.

The compound has also been found to alleviate knee pain resulting from osteoarthritis, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, although researchers also noted the difficulty of conducting studies because of the burning side effects.

Arthritis Research UK gives capsaicin a 5—the highest score possible—for alleviating osteoarthritis pain and a 2 for fibromyalgia, mostly because research in that area is limited, the non-profit says. The organization also gives the compound a green safety rating.

A study evaluating capsaicin’s use in 70 fibromyalgia patients, published in the journal Rheumatology International, found those using the ointment experienced less pain and depression, diminished fatigue, and better scores on a quality-of-life questionnaire than control subjects. The women applied capsaicin ointment 3 times daily for 6 weeks, and were compared to a 60-person control group who continued traditional medical treatment without taking a placebo.

What are considerations for taking capsaicin?

Although capsaicin is generally considered safe, burning sensations are common because the compound is an irritant to humans. Serious burns have been reported, although they’re rare.

Coughing spells ranging from mild to moderate have been reported, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Capsaicin may also interfere with ACE inhibitors, which are medications used to treat hypertension and heart failure.

Other side effects may include sneezing, coughing, or watery eyes. Try not to breathe in the smell of the ointment or patch, since the irritant can affect the nose. Despite the potential side effects, many people use the ointment without problem.

How long has capsaicin been used for?

Capsaicin’s modern chemical history began in 1816, when a chemist known as P.A. Bucholtz discovered the ability to extract the odoriferous compound from chili pepper pods through the use of organic solvents, according to the American Chemical Society.

30 years later, chemist L.T. Thresh named the substance in a paper he published that also reported the ability to remove it in a crystalline state. From the kitchen to the medicine cabinet, capsaicin shows potential for helping people manage leg pain.

Have you tried capsaicin for leg pain?

Image by shankar s. via Flickr