Leaves, menthol creamsMassage itself offers pain relief, but creams that contain menthol are a treatment option to consider as well.

With the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reporting that more Americans suffer from some type of pain than with cancer, diabetes and heart disease put together, it only makes sense that you’re going to have a number of clients who are dealing with some level of discomfort.

About Menthol Creams and the Research Behind Them

According to MedicineNet, menthol is a topical analgesic that cools the skin and then warms it, and this change in temperature prevents nerves from effectively transmitting pain. Jean Shea, founder and CEO of BIOTONE, states that menthol is derived from corn mint or peppermint and “acts as a local anesthetic to help relieve pain. It is also known to be a counterirritant and helps to reduce inflammation.” Research confirms this statement.

In a 2014 study published in Rehabilitation Research and Practice, researchers recruited 10 slaughterhouse workers with carpal tunnel syndrome or some other type of chronic pain and discomfort in the arm or hand. Half received treatment with menthol cream, while the other half received a placebo treatment cream that simply smelled like menthol. Based on the results of the treatment group versus the placebo group, the researchers concluded that “topical menthol acutely reduces pain intensity … of chronic and neuropathic pain.”

Another piece of research published in the March/April 2013 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training confirms menthol’s positive effect on pain. In this case, 19 participants were exposed to four different types of treatment, each occurring at least 24 hours apart. The treatments were:

  • Treatment via menthol gel only;
  • Treatment via ice only;
  • Treatment via menthol gel and ice; or
  • No treatment whatsoever.

The subjects reported that the gel-only treatment resulted in the least amount of discomfort compared to the other treatments at three different intervals—five, 10 and 20 minutes—following the remedy, thus reinforcing that menthol creams are highly effective when it comes to providing comfortable pain relief.

Best Use Practices

Courtenay Madsen, L.M.T., of Egan Chiropractic in Melbourne, Florida, uses menthol creams in her practice daily, estimating that 60 to 70 percent of her clients request they be applied at some point during the course of their massage. Both she and her daughter also regularly use menthol creams to better manage their own pain.

Madsen reports that the most common places she applies menthol creams to her clients tend to be knees, shoulders and other joint areas. Additionally, the conditions she has found respond well to menthol include muscle soreness and tightness, arthritis, and herniated or bulging discs.

Although most clients only want the menthol applied to certain areas, Madsen did have one client request it for a full-body massage, which “left my hands numb for two days” and caused her to be nauseous, so she recommends against this broad application.

One of the top best-use practices that Madsen has found when implementing menthol creams to her massage sessions is that, if the client is in a lot of pain or hasn’t had a massage in a long time, the cream helps “take the edge off.” This enables her to go a little deeper with her massage, yet still allows the client to be able to determine whether the pressure is OK or too intense.

At the end of her massage sessions, Madsen also gives her clients 2-ounce samples of the menthol cream to take home with them and use—ultimately increasing her sales of the products when they come back the next time and buy full bottles. However, she is always sure to let them know that “a little bit goes a long way.” She also advises them to wash their hands thoroughly after they apply it so they don’t spread it into their eyes or other sensitive areas.

Menthol Cream Safety

To use menthol cream safely, MedicineNet suggests that you don’t put it on open skin and also that you don’t use any type of heating device in addition to the cream. Additionally, it is not recommended for individuals who are taking blood-thinning medications, steroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as the menthol can interfere with the blood’s ability to clot.

Because there have been rare instances in which some menthol-based products have caused burns—43 reported cases in a 42-year time span—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a safety announcement, as well as a few recommendations for health care professionals. These include:

  • Share with your clients the proper use of the menthol products you carry, as Madsen does.
  • Advise clients of the risk of burns associated with these products.
  • Notify clients to discontinue use if they notice any burn or swelling to an area they applied the products. (This is especially important, since there is currently no FDA mandate to place this information directly on product labels.)

If one of your clients experiences a negative reaction to a menthol cream or gel, the FDA further advises that you file a MedWatch Online Voluntary Reporting Form, which you can find on the FDA’s website. Madsen notes that she’s never run into this issue.

About the Author

Christina DeBusk is a freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness and business marketing. She currently writes for ChiroNexus as well as other health-related publications. She can be contacted through christinamdebusk.com.