I was very confused the first time I heard of capsaicin cream being used for pain relief. Wasn’t capsaicin what gave chili peppers their heat?

If you’ve never heard of capsaicin cream, or didn’t realize the substance came from chili peppers, or are simply wondering what chili peppers have to do with pain relief, here’s an explanation.

Capsaicin cream is made with capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers. And even though the substance is colorless and odorless, it’s notorious for causing burning sensations when it comes in contact with skin. Scientists believe that in the peppers, capsaicin may serve as a form of protection, deterring animals from eating the plant so that the peppers can survive and continue propagating.

When incorporated into cream, capsaicin can provide some level of temporary relief for itching, inflammation and minor aches and pains. Capsaicin is capable of binding to a specific protein found on neurons that sense pain and heat. When this occurs, a kind of burning sensation is mimicked and the person feels heat wherever the skin has come in contact with the capsaicin.

If the capsaicin is left on the skin for long enough, the nerves become overwhelmed and the capsaicin starts to deplete the body’s reserves of “substance P” — a neurotransmitter for pain and heat. As a result, the body is incapable of feeling pain in that particular area for some length of time.

Once the capsaicin is removed, the body will eventually rebuild its reserves of substance P and feel pain again. This is why capsaicin cream is used only for temporary pain relief.

Capsaicin cream is commonly used in treatment for psoriasis, arthritis, back pain and nerve pain. A typical dosage would be 0.025% to start — a doctor might recommend a patient try applying capsaicin cream with this dosage several times a day to the trouble area. If the patient experiences no benefits with that amount, a higher dosage can be prescribed, although the administration is usually then performed by the patient’s doctor or other health professional.

Capsaicin cream at the lower dosage of 0.025% is usually easy to find at local drug stores or even online. Professionals recommend wearing gloves when applying the capsaicin cream, as the burning sensation it creates will otherwise be felt by your hands. Avoid contact with the cream anywhere other than the area it is supposed to be applied to. If you get capsaicin cream in your eyes, seek medical attention immediately.

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr


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