Sore muscles, whether from a hard workout or sleeping weirdly, can be an unwelcome distraction when you're just trying to go about your regular day. And while it won't magically heal you, a muscle rub or balm may be a good solution to at least help alleviate soreness and pain. These rubs get absorbed through the skin and can help soothe aching muscles or joints.
The key ingredients to look for are menthol, arnica, and camphor, says Shikha Sharma, PT, DPT and Clinical Director of SportsMed Physical Therapy in Woodbridge, NJ. "These ingredients create a pleasant diversion with their cooling sensations from pain and other irritations without causing irritation to the skin," she says. They should be applied in a thin layer to the affected area, and not in a massage. Dr. Sharma also notes that while using muscle balms, your perceived tolerance to pain and range of motion may appear to improve. "Be careful when exercising or engaging in any strenuous activity, as you don’t want to push yourself past your actual ability or range of motion," she say.
In addition, it's important to read the ingredients so you know what you're putting on your skin, says Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and creator of the LYT Yoga Method. Menthol's cooling effect can temporarily block pain signals from traveling to the brain, while other ingredient options like CBD and THC may be helpful with more chronic pain. Where possible, avoid dyes, preservatives, or parabens, and look for research -backed approval, says Heimann. "Synthetic-free and organic will be the best as you are applying directly on to the skin to be absorbed," she adds. Muscle balms that contain topical pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also be helpful if you're injured or can't take oral anti-inflammatories.
Ahead, find six expert-recommended muscle rubs to help provide some short-term pain relief.
Best Muscle Rubs
Biofreeze is free of parabens and uses a four percent menthol formula that provides fast and long-lasting pain relief by blocking the pain signal to your brain. The gel is non-greasy, and menthol gives it a cooling effect to help reduce inflammation, says Kyle Risley, a health expert and CEO of Lift Vault. It also comes in a roll-on and spray version to make application even easier and mess-free.
Tiger Balm is a classic—it’s been around for 100 years, and if you’ve ever had a jar in your cabinet, you’ll recognize its distinct smell. The main ingredients are camphor and menthol to provide warmth that helps open up blood vessels and increase circulation to loosen up any stiff joints.
This pain cream is made with natural ingredients like arnica, turmeric, aloe vera, calendula, menthol, and more, and doesn’t contain any toxic ingredients or artificial fragrances. It’s FDA-registered to relieve arthritis and backache pain, and doesn’t leave behind a strong smell.
Ted’s pain cream was developed by a neuroscientist and can be used on muscles or migraines. It’s a favorite of Heimann because in addition to menthol from wintergreen oil, it also includes resveratrol, which is found in grape skins and other plants, and has been shown to target pain-sensing nerves. The combo of the two can provide a more long-lasting remedy.
Voltaren cream goes beyond skin deep; it’s an NSAID medicine and absorbs into your muscles to help reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. It penetrates quickly, has no odor, and will last up to 12 hours, adds David Brendan, an ISSA /IFPA certified fitness trainer. It’s marketed as an arthritis cream, but can be used on muscles, too.
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