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Capsaicin Cream

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects, Tips & More

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Updated May 23, 2014

Red chili peppers
Henrik Sorensen/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-sin) is the active ingredient in chili peppers. It's what gives chili peppers their spicy kick.

Uses for Capsaicin Cream

Capsaicin cream is primarily used to relieve pain and itching. Conditions it is used for include:

When it is applied to the skin, capsaicin cream has been found to deplete substance P—a neurochemical that transmits pain—which desensitizes a person to pain.

Capsaicin cream produces a temporary reduction in pain, so it must be used regularly to provide prolonged pain relief.

Health Benefits of Capsaicin Cream

Thirteen out of 16 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 1535 people found capsaicin was more effective than placebo.

1) Arthritis

Researchers with Case Western Reserve University examined the use of capsaicin cream in 70 patients with osteoarthritis and 31 with rheumatoid arthritis. After 4 weeks of applying a 0.025% capsaicin cream or placebo to painful knees, the capsaicin patients had significantly more pain relief. Rheumatoid arthritis patients had 57% pain reduction and osteoarthritis patients had 33% pain reduction-both were considered more effective than placebo.

A European Journal of Pain study found that osteoarthritis pain was reduced after 6 weeks of using a 0.025% capsaicin cream.

See Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis and also 5 Remedies For Osteoarthritis Pain.

2) Back Pain

A German study compared a capsaicin plaster with a placebo for 3 weeks in 154 patients with chronic back pain. After 3 weeks, 60.8% of patients in the capsaicin group experienced at least a 30% reduction in pain, compared to 42.1% in the placebo group.

Capsaicin cream is just one remedy for back pain. Learn about 15 Remedies For Back Pain.

3) Nerve Pain

A British Journal of Pharmacology study assessed the effectiveness of the topical pain-relieving medication doxepin, a 0.025% capsaicin cream, a combination, or a placebo in 200 patients with chronic nerve pain. After 4 weeks, all three treatments significantly reduced pain.

A study by researchers with the Geisinger Clinical Oncology Program found that cancer patients with post-surgical nerve pain had substantially more pain relief after using capsaicin cream, with an average pain reduction of 53% versus 17% for the placebo.

Researchers with the University of Toronto evaluated the effectiveness of 0.075% capsaicin cream or placebo in 143 patients with post-herpetic neuralgia. After 6 weeks, those using the capsaicin cream had a significant reduction in pain. In contrast, patients using the placebo cream remained unchanged. A 2 year follow-up found that the pain relief was maintained or further improved in 86%.

At least 5 randomized controlled trials have found that 0.075% capsaicin cream is more effective than a placebo in relieving pain associated with diabetic neuropathy. An 8-week multicenter study of 235 patients with diabetic neuropathy involving the feet found that they were both equally effective in reducing pain. However, the capsaicin cream didn't have systemic side effects (such as drowsiness or cardiovascular side effects) prompting researchers to conclude that it may be a safer option.

4) Pruritic Psoriasis

A study by the University of Michigan Medical School examined the safety and efficacy of 0.025% capsaicin cream versus placebo in patients with pruritic (itchy) psoriasis. After 6 weeks, capsaicin patients had significantly greater improvement in itching.

Find out about other Natural Remedies For Psoriasis.

Dosage

A commonly recommended starting dose is 0.025% capsaicin cream applied four times a day. If this dose is ineffective, a 0.075% capsaicin cream can be used under the guidance of a health practitioner. Capsaicin cream is applied directly over areas of muscle or joint pain or itching.

Capsaicin cream can cause a stinging or burning sensation on the skin. Not everyone experiences it and the sensation doesn't appear to be necessary for it to work.

Some practitioners recommend using capsaicin cream for at least 4 continuous weeks to evaluate the effectiveness.

Safety

  • Wear gloves when applying capsaicin cream.
  • Do not apply it immediately after a hot bath or shower or use it with a heating pad.
  • Avoid getting capsaicin cream in eyes and other mucus membranes or broken skin.
  • The safety of capsaicin cream in pregnant or nursing women hasn't been established.

Side Effects

The main side effect of using capsaicin cream is that it can cause an uncomfortable burning sensation in the area.

Other side effects are coughing and skin redness. Higher doses can cause pain, inflammation, and skin blisters.

Drug Interactions

There have been no reported drug interactions with topical capsaicin cream.

Where to Find Capsaicin Cream

Capsaicin cream can be found at drug stores, health food stores, and online. A tube or jar of capsaicin cream typically costs between $8 and $25.

Sources

Biesbroeck R et al. "A double-blind comparison of topical capsaicin and oral amitriptyline in painful diabetic neuropathy." Advances in Therapy. 12.2 (1995):111-20.

Deal CL et al. "Treatment of arthritis with topical capsaicin: a double-blind trial." Clinical Therapeutics. 13.3 (1991):383-95.

Ellis CN et al. "A double-blind evaluation of topical capsaicin in pruritic psoriasis." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 29.3 (1993):438-42.

Ellison N et al. "Phase III placebo-controlled trial of capsaicin cream in the management of surgical neuropathic pain in cancer patients." Journal of Clinical Oncology. 15.8 (1997):2974-80.

Frerick H et al. "Topical treatment of chronic low back pain with a capsicum plaster." Pain. 106.1-2 (2003):59-64.

Keitel W et al. "Capsicum pain plaster in chronic non-specific low back pain." Arzneimittelforschung. 51.11 (2001):896-903.

Low PA et al. "Double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the application of capsaicin cream in chronic distal painful polyneuropathy." Pain. 62.2 (1995):163-8.

McCarthy GM and McCarty DJ. "Effect of topical capsaicin in the therapy of painful osteoarthritis of the hands." Journal of Rheumatolology. 19.4 (1992):604-7

McCleane G. Topical application of doxepin hydrochloride, capsaicin and a combination of both produces analgesia in chronic human neuropathic pain: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 49.6 (2000):574-9.

McCleane G. "The analgesic efficacy of topical capsaicin is enhanced by glyceryl trinitrate in painful osteoarthritis: a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study." European Journal of Pain. 4.4 (2000):355-60.

Paice JA et al. "Topical capsaicin in the management of HIV-associated peripheral neuropathy." Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 19.1 (2000):45-52.

Tandan R. et al. "Topical capsaicin in painful diabetic neuropathy. Controlled study with long-term follow-up." Diabetes Care. 15.1 (1992):8-14.

Watson CP et al. "A randomized vehicle-controlled trial of topical capsaicin in the treatment of postherpetic neuralgia." Clinical Therapeutics. 15.3 (1993):510-26.

Winocur E et al. "Topical application of capsaicin for the treatment of localized pain in the temporomandibular joint area." Journal of Orofacial Pain. 14.1 (2000):31-6.

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