Menthol for chronic pain relief

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Menthol for chronic pain relief

Kaitlin Morrison June 4, 2019
3 minute read

Menthol uses associate with chronic pain, but be aware of correct usages

Approximately one in five Americans struggle with some type of chronic pain according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with roughly 8% reportedly having “high-impact chronic pain.”

Whereas chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for six months or more and exists on at least half of those days, a United States National Pain Strategy for Population Research published in The Journal of Pain explains that high-impact chronic pain is pain that results in a “substantial restriction of participation in work, social, and self-care activities for six months or more.”

Because this level of chronic pain can be so debilitating, whether high-impact or not, it can send those experiencing it in search for relief. Menthol is one option to consider.

How menthol works for pain relief

Whereas some pain relief remedies are intended to actually treat the pained area, Harvard Medical School explains that menthol works simply by outlasting the pain.

Additionally, although topical menthol creates a cooling effect through its interaction with neuronal receptors, Harvard indicates that it doesn’t actually change the temperature of the skin. Why would someone in chronic pain consider the use of this remedy over all of the others that exist?

Research shows menthol works

It can be extremely frustrating to try a pain relief remedy only to not have it work. However, research has found that menthol is an effective pain management option.

One such study involved 10 slaughterhouse workers with carpal tunnel syndrome. Part of the group received treatment with a topical menthol and, 48 hours later, the same individuals received treatment via a placebo gel that smelled like menthol. The remaining members of the group had the same experience, but in reverse (placebo before the actual menthol treatment).

At the conclusion of the study, it was noted that pain intensity in the arm and hand area decreased more after actual menthol treatments than it did when treated with a placebo. Thus, the researchers concluded that it is an effective option for those who struggle with “chronic and neuropathic pain.”

Menthol more effective than ice

When faced with pain — whether chronic or acute — one of the most common recommendations is to ice the pained area.

Not only is this good for the pain because it essentially freezes the impacted area, but ice also helps reduce swelling and inflammation. Yet, research has found that menthol is potentially more effective with regard to pain relief specifically.

For instance, one study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy involved 16 individuals who performed exercises designed to create delayed muscle soreness in their elbow flexors. Two days later, when the soreness was likely to be present, some of the participants were treated with a 3.5 percent menthol topical. The remaining participants were treated with ice.

After 20 minutes of treatment, those who used the topical menthol analgesic reported having lower levels of pain than those who used ice for the same period of time. Those exposed to the menthol topical also experienced 116.9% higher tetanic force in their elbow flexors than the ice group.

Menthol safety

Another benefit of using menthol for pain relief is that it is safe to use. For instance, in one study of 208 patients, not one person experienced a serious adverse event after being exposed to menthol. In fact, the number of patients reporting any type of adverse effect was almost the same between the active patch group and those who had a placebo patch, at 6.7% and 5.8% respectively.

That said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does warn that a small number of people have reported serious skin injuries after using over-the-counter pain relieving topicals. Additionally, these issues were generally reported after using products with more than 3% menthol. For this reason, if pain, swelling, or blistering of the skin is present after using a topical containing menthol, the FDA recommends stopping the use of the product and seeking immediate medical attention.

Furthermore, to prevent these types of problems, the FDA suggests that healthcare professionals counsel patients in proper use of these pain relievers. This includes not using tight bandages over the area where the menthol has been applied and not applying this type of product to areas of the skin that are damaged, broken, or otherwise irritated. (


Morrison, K. (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].