Anti-inflammatory gels are readily seen on TV commercials and available at your chemist, and if you are wondering how do they work, you are not alone! This is a very common question, frequently asked in clinic.

Anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) topical gels work by the same process as orally taken NSAIDs.

They reduced pain and inflammation by blocking the production of enzymes that produce inflammatory chemicals therefore pain and swelling. The difference being orally ingested NSAIDs have a more widespread effect as they enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the entire body. Topical gels, on the other hand, have a more localised effect as they are absorbed into tissues (muscle, fascia, joint/ joint fluid) directly underneath the skin at point of application. This results in local reduction in pain and inflammation and a lower amount of NSAIDs entering the bloodstream – reducing possible side effects, most commonly affecting the stomach.

The benefit of this is that there is a lower dose of NSAIDs in the body producing a more direct effect.

Research has shown that topical anti-inflammatory gels reduce gastro-intestinal symptoms/ side effects which may be seen with orally ingested NSAIDs. However gels themselves may lead to skin irritation, increased light sensitivity of skin or an allergic reaction. As with any medicine it is important to consider any co-existing medical conditions, allergies or possibility of pregnancy prior to use therefore it is important to seek professional medical opinion before use.

Additionally, research has shown that anti-inflammatory gels are successful in the treatment of pain and inflammation associated with Arthritis, but may also be of benefit for other conditions such as

  • ITB syndrome
  • plantar fasciitis
  • muscle strains
  • joint sprains
  • shin splints
  • bursitis

They are of most benefit when the source of pain e.g. joint is superficial and not covered by thick tissues such as muscle. Prior to use it is also important to consider if there is actually any inflammation and is it the inflammation that is causing pain. In the absence of inflammation, NSAIDs will be ineffective in treating your pain.

So what does inflammation look or feel like?

Some indicators a joint or area may be inflamed include

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Stiffness/ immobility
  • Swelling
  • Change in temperature – hot
  • Prolonged morning pain and stiffness

If any of the above signs and symptoms are present this may suggest inflammation is a source of your pain and you may potentially benefit from the use of a topical anti-inflammatory gel.

In cases of acute inflammation such as joint sprain gels may be used until inflammation and pain subsides this may be a couple of days however in those with chronic conditions such as arthritis anti-inflammatory gels may be prescribed as part of long term management plan in liaison with medical professional.

To conclude anti-inflammatory gels are most effective when pain is local and close to skin and may be a safer alternative to orally ingested NSAIDs.

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