Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, which gives the spice its heat. This chemical also has analgesic properties which have been documented in medical research. However, joint pain presents a complicated picture, as joints are the most active and easily strained parts of the body. By evaluating the context and extent of joint pain, and obtaining professional guidance as needed, individuals can determine the appropriateness of using cayenne pepper and related products for potential pain relief.
Capsaicin and Pain
The pain-reducing effects of capsaicin are due to its effect on substance P, which is a chemical released in tissue damage that alerts the body to injury. Capsaicin applied topically can stimulate substance P production in an area, which initially creates a burning sensation. However, long-term or repeated exposure to capsaicin can reduce substance P in an area, leading to a diminished pain response.
Joints and Joint Pain
Bone joints are where at least two bones in the body make contact and provide structural or mechanical support to each other. Shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees are well known examples, but the wrists, tempromandibular region of the skull, and sacroiliac region also contain joints. Bone joints are joined together by ligaments (fibrous tissue) and cushioned by cartilage (connective tissue) and bursae (fluid-filled sacs). Through use and over time, the strength and elasticity of ligaments and cartilage can decline, leading to increased contact of the bones and, consequently, pain. Moreover, the ligaments, cartilage and bursae can become inflamed, leading to the sensation of pain within the joint.
Capsaicin may provide moderate relief for chronic pain, according to a 2004 study published in the "British Medical Journal." Researchers followed 656 pain patients for two months and concluded that capsaicin cream provided greater pain relief than a placebo for the treatment of neuropathic and musculoskeletal disorders. A study published in a 1991 issue of the jjournal "Clinical Therapies" of 101 patients with arthritis of the knee found that capsaicin creams provided significant pain reduction. In a study outlined in a 1992 issue of the "Journal of Rheumatology," researchers followed 21 patients with osteoarthritis of the hands over a four-week period. They concluded that topical application of capsaicin cream led to significant reductions in hand tenderness and pain.
Cayenne pepper may be sold as a loose spice, as an ingredient in topical pain-relief creams, or in supplements. Since spices and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the quality of products and their therapeutic properties may vary. It should be noted that while medical research has not shown a link between ingesting cayenne and joint pain reduction, joint pain may be an unwanted side effect of ingested cayenne for other conditions. Individuals may create their own pain-relief cream by brewing cayenne pepper with apple cider vinegar (the vinegar enables the pepper to be washed off more easily from the skin), and applying the cooled mixture to sore areas. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when applying and removing the mixture, and wash hands carefully afterward to prevent further skin irritation.
Individuals should never apply cayenne powder or related products to open skin or near the face, to prevent skin allergies or irritations. Ingesting capsaicin may cause an increase in stomach acid production, so individuals with a history of ulcers or heartburn should be wary. The University of Maryland Medical Center cautions that capsaicin may cause bleeding complication for individuals taking blood-thinning medications. The UMMC recommends that pregnant women avoid taking cayenne due to its stimulating properties and nursing mothers exercise caution, as cayenne can be passed into breast milk. In general, individuals interested in using cayenne for therapeutic use would do well to consult with their primary care provider, due to individual drug interactions and potential side effects.