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6 Best Pain Relief Medicines That Aren’t Pills


Emcara Health Editors


September 28, 2023


Trouble swallowing pills? These alternatives ease pain just as well—and are available at your local drugstore.

When you think about pain medicine, you probably think of pills. You can find a lot of pain relief pills in stores, available with and without a prescription. Some of the most common ones are aspirin, acetaminophen (like Tylenol), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Advil and Motrin).

These medicines are popular for a reason—pills are easy to buy, store, and take for most people. But not for everyone. In fact, one study found that almost 40% of Americans have a hard time swallowing pills, a condition known as “pill dysphagia.”

For other people, pills may cause problems like heartburn or constipation. “Many people don’t tolerate pills very well,” says Kerri T. Musselman, PharmD, BCACP, a pharmacist and vice president of pharmacy care solutions at Emcara Health.

If you want to ease aches and pains without having to swallow a pill, you’re in luck. Here are six other options that work equally well, according to Musselman and other experts.

Alternative Pain Reliever #1: Lidocaine topical

Best for: Nerve pain

Lidocaine is a type of medicine that makes your skin and the nearby areas feel numb. You can usually use it as a cream or put it on with special patches called lidocaine transdermal patches.

It’s available over the counter or by prescription. Some brands to look for: Absorbine Jr, Aspercreme, Lidocare, Dermalid, Lidoderm, and Salonpas.

“Lidocaine patches work well for neuropathic pain and are applied directly to the pain site,” Musselman says. Neuropathic pain happens when nerves become damaged due to injury or disease, such as diabetes. Lidocaine topical can also ease pain caused by minor scrapes or insect bites.

Alternative Pain Reliever #2: Diclofenac topical

Best for: Joint pain

Diclofenac topical is a type of medicine that helps with pain and swelling. It’s a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. You can buy it without a prescription as Voltaren Arthritis Pain, or by prescription as Pennsaid.

“It is great for arthritis pain in knees and joints and can be applied directly to the site up to two times a day,” says Musselman.

Alternative Pain Reliever #3: Capsaicin topical

Best for: Nerve pain

Capsaicin is a substance found in chili peppers. It works by decreasing activity of nerve cells in the skin. Capsaicin topicals come as an ointment, cream, gel, or patch. Look for brand names like Capzasin, Rid-A-Pain, Trixaicin, and Zostrix.

“Not everyone likes the smell, and you have to use gloves to apply,” Musselman cautions.

Alternative Pain Reliever #4: Menthol topical

Best for: Muscle soreness

Menthol is another ingredient commonly used in pain relief topicals. It’s been used for pain relief since ancient times. Menthol is an analgesic that causes a cooling sensation, says Musselman. It is found in topical pain relievers like Icy Hot.

Alternative Pain Reliever #5: Heat or ice

Best for: Acute pain (ice), soreness (heat)

Ice or heat are also recommended to relieve pain. Ice does so constricting blood vessels and reducing swelling. It’s best for injuries—bumps and bruises that cause pain and swelling.

Heat works in the opposite way—it opens blood vessels, increasing blood flow and the oxygen and nutrients reaching your tissues. It’s best for conditions like joint pain and soreness.

Sometimes, they work well together. If you pull a muscle, according to Musselman, ice can slow the swelling and ease your pain. And heat can help the muscle heal more quickly, reducing soreness.

Alternative Pain Reliever #6: Alternative therapies

Best for: Chronic pain

A pharmacist may also recommend scientifically proven non-drug therapies for pain relief, such as physical therapy, acupuncture, or massage therapy for pain relief.

“Pharmacists don’t always jump to medicines,” says Musselman. “We look at what patients have tried—from medication to other options. Have they looked at physical therapy if they need it? Have they looked at massage therapy? Have they done acupuncture? These may be good alternatives.”

Learn how Emcara Health helps you stay pain-free at home—and find out if you’re eligible—by calling 1-800-728-0901 from 9 am to 7 pm Monday to Friday.

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