Pushing oneself in the gym can be incredibly satisfying in the moment — euphoric even — and then comes the day after. A blistering core sets in when trying to sit up in bed, screaming calves accompany on the walk to the bathroom, and achy shoulders swiftly prevent raising anything above the navel. Even the mightiest fall victim to muscle soreness, and while constant aching shouldn’t be the goal, an occasional spell of pain post-workout is a healthy sign of pushing oneself, whether it’s a deadlift PR or a lengthy training run.
Thankfully, muscle relaxant creams can serve as a quasi-solution to help make a high-functioning body actually functional again. When applied promptly after the soreness sets in, their warming or cooling effects can help distract the mind from angry muscles and provide minimal relief to help usher through the initial, and often most painful, period.
Suzy Judd, a UK-based physical therapist explained that muscle healing goes through three stages: acute inflammatory response, repair, and remodeling. “The first phase is the body’s immediate defensive mechanism to trauma and infection, which is why we get the main signs of trauma such as redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function,” she said.
Altering the temperature of the skin stimulates blood flow and can speed up healing — or at the very least, can provide some relief when muscles are at their most inflamed. Both warming and cooling topical creams can help remedy soreness in different ways: either by cooling off swollen, inflamed muscles or helping to increase blood flow in the area to speed up recovery. David Mason, a Wyoming-based personal trainer and owner of Barbells Abroad, explained that cooling muscle relaxant creams “will commonly contain menthol, which gives a cooling sensation and helps to reduce muscle pain.” Alternatively, he said, an ice pack can be “used in combination with anti-inflammatory creams that contain turmeric or CBD, both of which are known to help with reducing inflammation.”
Whether formulated to heat or cool, muscle relaxant creams should be applied promptly.
The Best Muscle Relaxant Creams: At a Glance
Frequently Asked Questions About Muscle Relaxant Creams
How do muscle relaxant creams help with soreness?
Heating muscle creams in particular mimic the same anti-inflammatory effects as ibuprofen by raising the skin’s temperature and encouraging blood flow. This difference in skin temperature signals to the body that it needs healing or attention, hence why bare skin turns red in the freezing cold. Judd explained that this happens with a process called vasodilation, in which the body relaxes blood vessels’ muscular walls and pumps more blood to areas of the body that need it more.
The difference in skin temperature can also distract the mind from the soreness itself, giving it a mentally comforting quality in addition to the physical healing properties.
When should you use muscle relaxant creams?
Most muscle relaxant creams are meant to be used on an as-need basis. The simple answer is to use them when in pain, or when muscles feel a little too tight. They’re designed to make movement easier in the midst of soreness and are best used in the few days after a heavy workout.
They are not meant to supplement stretching, foam rolling, or other recovery measures, so for those on strict training regimens who need to bounce back quickly, those other habits should still be exercised.
Should you wash your hands after using them?
A lot of these creams have active ingredients in them, like menthol, that cause light tingling or even heat up or cool down the body parts they’re applied to. They should be kept well away from more sensitive areas, like the eyes, inside the nose and, well, you can imagine where else.
Are there any risks associated with muscle relaxant creams?
Judd said that some muscle relaxant creams run the risk of causing skin burns, blisters, rashes, and a burning sensation. She also noted that most brands advise against using the cream on the same area more than three times per day “to avoid excessive blood flow to the area (excessive vasodilation), which can have negative effects on the body.”
Tiger Balm Pain Relieving Ointment
Tiger Balm’s reputation as a seriously effective topical pain reliever supersedes many users’ desire to understand what’s in it or why it works. This balm uses a mix of ingredients like mint oil, camphor, and menthol that leave an intense feeling after application and improve blood flow as a result. For easing the average aches and pains post-workout, it’s one of the best tools out there.
Justin Tardif-Francoeur, a personal trainer and massage therapist at Montreal Weights, went to bat for it, too. “[It] produces a warming sensation that helps to increase blood flow to the affected area, which can help to reduce muscle stiffness and soreness,” she said.
Sombra Natural Pain Relieving Gel
The biggest advantages of this gel are that it doesn’t use any alcohol at all so it’ll fill nostrils with a mildly pleasant smell rather than one that’s slightly evocative of a triage station. Rather than utilizing harsher ingredients, it’s formulated to ease all kinds of pain with a combination of aloe and menthol and is designed to absorb quickly, too.
Penetrex Joint & Muscle Therapy Gel
Gels and creams are all well and good, but sometimes the hands need to stay clean. This option from Penetrex is a roll-on gel, meaning there’s no need to touch a chilling goo that can easily cross-contaminate other bodily surfaces. It includes ingredients such as arnica, glucosamine, and vitamin B6, so muscles will feel soothed and relaxed after every application.
Cramp 911 Muscle Relaxing Lotion
For fast-acting muscle pain relief (i.e. a bad cramp), keep some of this aptly-named Cramp 911 on deck. It works in as little as 15 seconds, and with a roll-on bottle, it’s easy to apply, too. It also lasts up to eight hours, so it can be used at night if muscle pain is ruining a good night’s sleep.
Don’t Push Through Too Hard
Muscle relaxant creams can be used for pain relief, but it is important not to use them to push through injuries. While some aches and soreness can go away with a little bit of encouragement from either stretching routines or lightweight work, others are only going to get worse. Don’t ever use a muscle relaxant cream to push through anything worse than a dull ache, and even then, double-check things with a physician if in doubt.