Does Icy Hot Help With Pain?

Pain can come in many forms and from many different causes. At AIPI, we’ve seen patients suffering from slip and fall accidents, victims of car crashes, sports injuries and more. For these patients, we offer a wide variety of appropriate treatment options, including radiofrequency rhizotomy, pain injections as well as other more intensive treatment plans. 

For mild pain that doesn’t require a physician, there are many ways to treat your pain at home without medication. These can include light exercises and activity, stretching, practicing good posture and more. 

If these methods don’t work, oftentimes the next stop might be over-the-counter medication. For topical relief, one of the more common options is Icy Hot, a brand that offers a variety of gels, sleeves and other products that are applied to the affected area and are purported to temporarily relieve mild aches and pains. But does it really work? 

What is Icy Hot?

Icy Hot is something called a counterirritant. The primary idea behind the product is known as the Gate Control Theory of Pain, which suggests that creating inflammation or irritation in one area blocks the pain signals from another area. Essentially, the idea is that our brains can’t process inputs of pain and non-pain at the same time. The theory states that there is a “gated control” of sorts within the central nervous system. By default, the gate is closed, but certain inputs can open it. 

How does Icy Hot work? 

The classic Icy Hot balm features menthol, methyl salicylate, and capsaicin. Menthol creates a cooling sensation when applied to the skin. The body isn’t actually “cooling,” but rather, menthol activates a cold-sensing receptor protein. When the protein senses a temperature drop, it enters nerve cells and sends a cooling sensation. Methyl salicylate carries out the counterirritant duties, bothering the skin just enough to block other pain signals. This compound is used in many topical treatments for this reason. Capsaicin delivers the “hot” component, using the same fiery compound that gives chili peppers their heat.  

When these are applied to the skin, they change the temperature of the skin—noticeable sensations of cool then hot—which is just enough of a distraction to send a signal to the brain. When it’s distracted, it cannot “feel” other pain like sore muscles and achy joints. 

Does Icy Hot really help pain?

If you’ve ever applied Icy Hot, it’s hard to deny that something is certainly happening. But can this reaction on the skin really do something for pain? 

Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of science out there about the effectiveness of over-the-counter topical treatments like Icy Hot. As a first-line therapy for mild pain, Icy Hot and other topical analgesics may offer a modicum of relief by temporarily distracting you from the pain.

However, it’s important to understand that there is no “healing” going on from the Icy Hot itself. It does not affect your muscles, nor can it correct any damaged tissues. It simply creates a distraction from your pain, hopefully long enough for your body to initiate a healing process. 

For those who suffer from acute pain, chronic pain or more intensive injuries, however, the effects of Icy Hot will likely be minimal. For this kind of pain, you should always see a professional medical provider as soon as possible. 

Getting Help When You Need It 

All of this does not necessarily suggest Icy Hot is not effective, but it does mean you should understand how it is working and know its limitations. For mild and temporary pain, actual ice and heat can be very effective, as can other simple home techniques. Check out this post for some more ideas. 

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, or have questions about how you can get treatment with AIPI, get in touch with us any time.