11/26/2012 06:18 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

The Safe Use of Topical Pain Relievers

Thus far, there have been 34 reported deaths and 490 non-fatal cases from the outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by tainted steroid injections used to alleviate debilitating back or neck pain. It is a national tragedy that makes each of us think twice about possible consequences to invasive medical procedures. For people who are experiencing muscle or joint pain, a seemingly-safe, non-invasive alternative is the use of topical pain relievers.

Topical pain relievers are generally inexpensive and available in your local drugstore. They contain over-the-counter active ingredients like capsaicin, methyl salicylate or menthol. Examples of preparations that contain these ingredients are Bengay, Capzasin, Flexall, Icy Hot, and Mentholatum. While many of these products have been available and used safely for many years (I remember my maternal grandmother, a domestic worker, relied on Bengay to relieve her muscle aches), one should nevertheless be knowledgeable of potential side effects as well as the correct use of these products.

The FDA released a report alerting doctors that ingredients in topical pain relievers have the potential of causing rare cases of serious skin injuries. The reported injuries included serious chemical burns that ranged from first to third degree. Knowing how to avoid potential injury to the skin, including burns, is important. Although these products may produce the sensation of warmth or coolness when they are applied to the skin, they should not produce burning or pain. The following tips are a useful guide to safely using topical pain relievers.

• Do not apply pain relievers to broken or damaged skin. If your skin is cut, scratched or abraded, avoid applying the products until after the skin has healed. Also, if you have a rash or bumps on your skin, do not apply to that area either until the rash has resolved.

• Do not cover or bandage the skin after applying the pain reliever. Simply rub the lotion, cream or gel into the skin until it disappears. Do not use Band-Aids, gauze, or ace bandages over the pain reliever. This may intensify the effect, which may produce harm to the skin.

• Do not apply heating pads after applying the pain reliever. If you use a heating pad, apply it to the sore muscle or joint and remove it 20 minutes before applying the pain reliever.

• Remove the pain reliever with warm soap and water if the skin becomes uncomfortable from itching, burning or pain. If pain, swelling or blistering of the skin occurs where you applied the product, see your doctor immediately.