Have you ever woken up with muscles so sore you can’t even move? Almost every time I go exercise I come back super sore and my mom tells me to use IcyHot or Bengay. This made me wonder—do topical muscle creams actually work?
Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS starts to appear “within 12 to 24 hours after exercise, peaks after 24 to 72 hours, and should disappear within three to five days.” This happens when the muscle tissues are stressed and small tears in the muscle appear when you contract your muscle.
Muscle creams contain three main ingredients: menthol, camphor and methyl salicylate. These ingredients create feelings of warm and cold to the skin and “competes with and helps to block the pain signals associated with DOMS…so [it] has no direct effect on the muscles themselves.” Since there is no direct contact between the cream and the sore muscles, it is believed that the muscle cream “distracts” the nervous system from the pain of the muscles and concentrates on the sensations of hot and cold.
Dr. William O. Roberts claims that “We try to treat based on the scientific literature, and I personally haven’t seen a lot of good literature supporting the use of topical analgesic so unless someone does a double-blind study with lots of proof, we really don’t have good evidence that these products make any difference.” Since there has been little research on the use of sports creams, there is no proof as to whether or not easing muscle pain with creams is due to the placebo effect. One solution could be giving two randomized groups of 200 people specific workout regimens and handing one group a sports cream, while handing the other a placebo. The only problem with this is that people have different levels of strength and some people will be more sore than others, so those who are more sore might believe the cream doesn’t work.
Ultimately, there are not enough studies to prove whether muscle creams work. Personally, the hot and cold sensations relieve my muscle pain, so using these sports creams is up to personal preference. Since these creams haven’t done any harm to my skin or muscles, I might as well just continue using them.