Massage therapy, in combination with the right topical pain relief product, can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation for athletes.

Growth in America’s health and fitness industry has been escalating approximately 4% annually throughout the last decade, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA).

Trends toward healthy living might be driving people to engage in more regular physical activity, from running, biking and playing basketball to yoga, swimming or walking.

The downside to increased physical activity? A greater risk for injury.

Addressing Sports Injuries

WebMD reports that some of the most common sports-related injuries include ankle or hamstring sprain, groin pull, shin splints, tennis elbow and knee problems. In many cases, massage therapy, in combination with the right topical pain relief product, can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, helping your active clients return more quickly to the links, the trail, the court, the mat or the pool.

Cyclists, equestrians, runners, weightlifters, golfers and tennis players comprise, in part, the client base at Skin ‘n Tonic Spa and Salon in New Hope, Pennsylvania, according to owner Kerian Bray.

“[When] these clients present with over-used muscles or regions, shortened range of motion and inflammation, I help prepare the body for a competition or recovery from one,” she said.

Adding Topical Pain Relief to Massage Therapy

To address some athletic injuries, Bray applies a therapeutic topical pain relief spray to the affected area and then wraps it or places kinesiology tape over it. She uses a non-scented spray the client can use at home.

“I also suggest a therapeutic balm in the evening as it can soak into the area. Since it is more emollient, it will help nourish and soothe the skin, plus will increase circulation to help lessen aches,” she said. 

Bray explained that topical pain relievers contain a variety of ingredients that work in different ways. “Ginger, turmeric and ho wood warm aching muscles and increase circulation. [These ingredients] also relax muscles, preventing aches and stiffness,” she said.

Additionally, arnica addresses inflammation and pain; magnesium sulfate reduces pain; and witch hazel alleviates pain and fatigue. “I avoid products with parabens, silicones and synthetic fragrances,” Bray said. “Also, I don’t use products tested on animals. I look for ingredients that are clean or organic.”

Hot Topical Pain Relief Therapy

Capsaicin, a chili pepper extract, is another ingredient that has proven effective as a topical analgesic agent for pain relief, according to Judith MacBain, massage therapist at Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, Pennsylvania.

An article published on The Academy of Clinical Massage website reported that capsaicin has been known to cause an “…alkaloid irritation to the skin and mucous membranes that produces pain-relieving sensations.” Initially the area where capsaicin is applied may experience a burning, prickling or itching sensation; however, after this initial reaction, the area becomes desensitized, leading to an analgesic effect.

Techniques for Sports Injuries

In addition to topical pain relievers, Bray uses massage techniques most beneficial for each individual client.

“I generally use fascial work and sport massage techniques to open and elongate the muscle groups or a little friction or tapotement to loosen, then soothing effleurage to calm,” she said. “If [muscles are] swollen or inflamed, I will do some lymphatic work. Kinetic chain release, which is fascial work, can be done while the topical is on, since the client is fully clothed during the session.”


Following a massage session, Bray suggests clients take a bath to assist in healing the body. “I recommend magnesium, arnica or juniper-based baths. The bath additive depends on what we need to achieve,” she said.

Allen Conrad, DC, CSCS, owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center, noted that in his experience large muscle groups, such as the back and shoulder regions, seem to benefit most when topical pain relief is used in conjunction with massage therapy and bodywork.

“The combination of massage therapy and direct pressure helps get the topical cream past the dermal outer layers of the skin, which helps get to the root cause of the muscle spasm faster,” he said. “Topicals with massage therapy and bodywork seem to have longer-lasting effects.”

Conrad serves as team chiropractor for a local rugby team and uses topical pain relievers to help athletes return to the field faster. “The combination of chiropractic care, massage therapy and topical analgesic creams has been effective for quicker recovery times,” he said. “Any type of treatment that can get athletes back playing faster after an injury is a benefit to the team.”

Contraindications for Topical Pain Relief

While topicals can effectively address injuries, they might also create an adverse reaction in some clients. “Make sure you have a clear listing of all ingredients in the product — both active and inactive — and cross check with your client’s intake form and verbally, as to any allergic reactions to past products, including at home products,” said Bray. 

“Apply [topicals] at the very end of the treatment so you don’t cross use in other non-needing areas.”


To further avoid bad reactions, Bray emphasized that therapists should always know how and where topical pain relief products are manufactured.

“You may have a nut-reactive client and perform your massage with a nut-free product. But then you apply a topical product for muscular relief and it either contains nuts or nut derivatives or was manufactured in a facility that is not nut-free,” she added.

Winning Combination

When your client informs you of a new hobby that involves physical exertion, applaud them — and be ready to help alleviate any strains, sprains or inflammation that might occur with a regimen of massage and topical pain relief treatments.

About the Author

Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage.

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