Capsaicin, the compound in peppers that gives them their tell-tale heat, is a surprisingly effective treatment for pain. It is hard to believe when you bite into a particularly hot pepper and flail around for relief that this heat can be a positive force for pain management.

The heat level in peppers is measured by the Scoville Scale, a tool that is based entirely on the heat receptors in the individuals tasting the peppers. While it isn’t considered scientifically objective, the scale has been used for over 100 years since it was developed. Every person will taste a pepper differently which means that chili near the top of the scale will barely affect some people while others will be unable to tolerate the heat.

But the role of capsaicin isn’t just to make peppers taste hotter. Our bodies are designed with certain receptors including those that process this compound. When capsaicin comes in contact with the body it appears to cause inflammation. However, instead of producing a chemical burn reaction as expected with a volatile substance, it causes the nerves to respond positively. Over time, it can reduce the pain sensation.

Capsaicin is most effective as a topical ointment or a patch. It can be purchased over the counter in most cases or in stronger doses that require a prescription. In either case, it shouldn’t be used without the care of a doctor to manage the pain levels. Improper use of this treatment can cause long-term damage.

Capsaicin causes a burning pain sensation immediately after being applied to the skin. Over time, this sensation dissipates as the patient’s body begins to recognize the treatment. It is typically a long-term strategy requiring several days of use before improvements in the pain conditions are noticeable.

Conditions helped by capsaicin

The following conditions may be relieved by the use of this treatment:

  • Pain after surgery: Because surgical pain is caused by the invasive procedure it is important to manage the acute pain before it becomes chronic. Hospitals and doctors have utilized the 8% capsaicin patch with positive results for pain after surgery, such as a mastectomy as a result of breast cancer. When a patient’s pain transitioned to chronic pain and other treatments weren’t helping, the use of capsaicin provided relief.
  • Neuropathy, such as diabetic neuropathy and shingles: Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to the nerves which send incorrect signals to the brain. It is very common after an illness such as shingles or as a result of diabetes. Many of the medications that are used for neuropathy are high risk and have difficult side effects. Capsaicin can be an excellent alternative if other remedies don’t work or when side effects are undesirable.
  • Cluster or migraine headaches: Two very different types of headaches, cluster and migraine, have proven difficult to treat with conventional methods. Some studies have demonstrated that intranasal applications of capsaicin can provide relief to patients dealing with these painful headache conditions. The capsaicin blocks the receptors that are sending the pain signals to the brain and helps to control symptoms.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis: One of the most common uses of topical capsaicin is for various forms of arthritis. It helps to block a chemical that communicates pain with the brain. Relief may not be immediate so continued use is recommended but don’t overuse the topical treatment either. Otherwise, capsaicin may be one of the best non-invasive treatments for arthritis pain available.
  • Psoriasis: This condition causes a scaly rash that itches intensely. Because psoriasis affects the skin, using topical treatments seems to be the most effective. Studies dating back to the 1980s have shown that capsaicin can relieve the itching sensation over time. The use of capsaicin may even improve the thickening and scaling of the skin. Like with most uses of capsaicin, it is a treatment that is most effective when done over time.

New research on capsaicin for pain

In August of this year the American Chemical Society released a study on the use of capsaicin to relieve a variety of pain and inflammatory conditions. The researchers indicated that scientists in the 1990s were able to map the genetic sequence for the receptor in the body to which capsaicin attaches itself. This receptor, a cell protein, acts as a gate that will allow only certain substances to pass. When pain doesn’t respond to medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids, a new solution must be found to provide relief to patients dealing with chronic conditions.

The American Chemical Society team used this research to explore other options related to the capsaicin studies in the past to find better drug candidates for pain.

The summary from Science Daily explains:

“Biting into a chili pepper causes a burning spiciness that is irresistible to some, but intolerable to others. Scientists exploring the chili pepper’s effect are using their findings to develop a new drug candidate for many kinds of pain, which can be caused by inflammation or other problems. They have now reported their progress on the compound, which is being tested in clinical trials.”

There is now hope that patients who are living with the effects of various chronic pain conditions may one day be able to use a medication created from the chemical compounds found in capsaicin which block the receptors that transmit incorrect pain signals to the brain.

Use caution when utilizing topical capsaicin for pain management

If not used properly, capsaicin can cause more pain than it controls. Capsaicin is also the primary ingredient in pepper spray which is used by law enforcement and as a personal safety tool. Always wash your hands after you apply it. If you’ve ever chopped peppers in your kitchen and then touched your eyes will know it is no laughing matter. Wash your hands thoroughly to avoid contact with the compound in the wrong places.

However, capsaicin is generally safe for most people to use. Don’t use it if you have an allergy to capsaicin or peppers. Don’t use it on broken skin or already inflamed areas. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should be cautious and speak with their doctor before using this treatment method. Also, let your doctor know about other medications as there are some drug interactions. It is recommended to start with smaller amounts of capsaicin and increase the amount over time as your body builds up tolerance for it.

We want to hear from you: have you used capsaicin to treat chronic pain? What were your experiences?

Image by Geoff Hutchison via Flickr