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The Best Muscle Rubs: Creams, CBD Oils, and Gels to Relieve Pain

About a month ago, I was sitting right here at my desk doing exactly what I’m doing right now: writing. After finishing an article, I leaned back, lifted my arms for a good stretch, and felt this little pop in the muscles just under my left shoulder blade. The searing pain was immediate, as was an outpouring of profanity. I’d felt the exact same pop and pain on the right side about four years ago when I experienced a similar injury, and knew I was in for days and maybe weeks of soreness. (It was, and remains, weeks, in case you were wondering.)

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The one small bit of silver lining this time around, as opposed to my writing-related injury of 2016, is that I have a plethora of muscle rubs in my linen closet. Why? Because I’m not getting any younger, and I’m not easing off my active lifestyle any time soon, so more soreness, aches, cramps, and general muscle pain, both acute and chronic, are a fact of life for which I try to prepare for.

A good muscle rub offers temporary pain relief and can even speed healing and recovery by reducing inflammation caused by acute injury. For chronic pains, like that back ache that greets you every morning, muscle rubs can’t treat the underlying issue, but they can make pain much more manageable. Having tried multiple different gels, creams, oils, and roll-ons in recent years, I can tell you that not all types of muscle rub (to use the term generally) work the same for me as they might for you, so if you try a CBD rub and don’t experience much relief, don’t give up on the whole category. Instead, try something with different ingredients like lidocaine or magnesium. And make sure you follow the directions, too. Slathering on too much cream too often won’t help, and may cause irritation. (Or so my skin tells me. And warning labels.)

Icy Hot Max Strength Lidocaine Cream

Icy Hot Max Strength Lidocaine Cream

Icy Hot has been around for years. It was the go-to for coaches and trainers back in high school, and I used the stuff after many a wrestling match back in the day and still use it semi-regularly today. The menthol in the formula creates a quick cooling and soothing sensation (yes, it gets a bit intense at times), and then the 4% lidocaine provides some relief by reducing nerve sensitivity in the area of application. After a little while, you’ll experience a vague warming sensation, thus the hot part of the name. I love this stuff, but definitely don’t use it more than three times in one day, or else you’ll get a rash.

Extract Labs CBD Muscle Cream

Extract Labs CBD Muscle Cream

Yes, $90 for a 2.8-ounce tin of muscle rub is crazy-expensive. However, I’ve been using this stuff almost exclusively since the aforementioned shoulder injury, and let me tell you this: You can put a price on pain relief, and it’s a lot higher than $90 before it’s too pricey. The 1,500-milligram cannabidiol (CBD) concentration in this formula is much higher than many other CDB muscle rubs. The blend of other ingredients, like jojoba, menthol, and shea butter are plenty relaxing and soothing on their own. In years past, I was something of a topical CDB skeptic, especially having used a few creams with lesser concentration of cannabidiol. In the search for relief from this damn shoulder sprain, I tried this extra potent stuff, and the relief has been genuine and most welcome, lasting several hours after each application.

Ancient Minerals Magnesium Gel Ultra

Ancient Minerals Magnesium Gel Ultra

First, let me be crystal clear: I’m not advocating for, nor do I believe in the ability of, a topical magnesium product to enter the body and help offset a magnesium deficiency, which can cause everything from muscle cramps to gastrointestinal issues to sleep problems. For relief from sore muscles or joints, however, a magnesium gel can provide temporary reprieve, reducing inflammation and tightness. Rub it in deeply and allow for maximum absorption (don’t put on a shirt or pants too fast, e.g.) and do be ready for a bit of itchiness along with your relief.

Penetrex Pain Relief Therapy

Penetrex Pain Relief Therapy

Penetrex cream is used by seemingly everyone, from competitive marathon runners to people who face backaches every time they stand up out of a chair. What sets this cream apart from most other muscle rubs is that it does not use “cooling” agents like menthol or clove oil that effectively mask pain, but instead it’s designed to reduce inflammation, actually removing the root cause of some pain. The relief effects aren’t as immediate as with other options, but they are comparatively lasting.

Biofreeze Cool the Pain Roll-On

Biofreeze Cool the Pain Roll-On

Biofreeze is not going to fix that strained calf muscle or sprained knee, but it might just help get the pain off your mind. The active ingredient here is menthol, and it is present in enough concentration for quick cooling relief — think 4% compared to the 1% menthol of the Icy Hot. Because this formula does not use other active ingredients, you can apply it up to four times a day, making it a great choice for relief from pain caused by minor injuries that you expect to heal sooner than later.

Tiger Balm Muscle Rub

Tiger Balm Muscle Rub

You probably know this already, but don’t overdo it with the Tiger Balm. This stuff is 5% menthol (the highest concentration in our selections), 3% camphor, and 15% methyl salicylate. All told, that’s 21% active topical pain relief ingredients — in other words, this stuff is intense. But it is also a long-trusted source of relief from muscle pain, not to mention joint and spinal pain. Strongly consider wearing gloves while you apply it, as you really don’t want a bit of Tiger Balm getting into your mouth, nose, or eyes.

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