Patches are growing in popularity over pills to relieve muscle and joint pain. Here's why.

The benefits of pain relief from a patch

Pain relief medication delivered through a skin patch can be safer and more effective than pain pills, when taken according to directions. You simply apply the patch to your skin over the painful area and the medication absorbs into your bloodstream. The patch continues to deliver the medicine for 8 to 12 hours. (Oral pain medications, in comparison, typically provide relief for 4 to 6 hours).

Direct delivery of the medication to the source of your pain offers many benefits over taking pills. As reported by the Johns Hopkins Health Information Network, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

  • Medication from a patch reduces the risk of upset stomach, ulcers, liver distress or gastrointestinal bleeding that oral medication can cause because the medication doesn't travel through your digestive system.

  • Pain patches require lower doses than orally administered pain medication to achieve the same level of relief.

  • Relief from pills can diminish between doses. Patches provide more consistent relief.

Different doses for different types of pain

Pain patches are available in prescription and non-prescription strengths. Prescription patches include fentanyl (Duragesic®), a narcotic that relieves chronic pain, and diclofenac (Flector® Patch), the first FDA-approved nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) patch. According to Drugs.com Flector® is prescribed for pain that's caused by minor strains, sprains, and bruises. The Johns Hopkins Health Information Network warns that while Flector® Patch is less potent than Duragesic®, it's still quite strong.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain patches deliver the lowest dose of pain medication. The active ingredients are typically camphor or menthol, and brands include Bengay, Aspercreme, Tiger Balm and Salonpas. Salonpas's ingredients include methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like NSAID, and Salonpas is the first OTC NSAID pain patch to be approved by the FDA.

Athletes like Katherine Nichols, a 35-year triathlon veteran, find OTC pain patches helpful when recovering from injuries. Nichols, 44, said via e-mail that she favors Salonpas, which she uses in conjunction with "rest, ice, strengthening and rehabilitation exercises, rolling and, perhaps, some gentle stretching, an oral anti-inflammatory and identifying and altering factors that may have contributed to the problem."

Safety precautions

As with any medication, pain patches can be abused by their users, and overdoses can lead to serious medical complications, including death.

If you use a prescription-strength pain patch, use only as directed by your doctor. If you use an OTC pain patch, use only as directed on the package. Read directions carefully to make sure you don't have a medical condition that could be adversely affected by the medication.

Also keep in mind that pain patches provide pain relief but they are not cures for your conditions. If you have ongoing pain, see your physician.

For more information visit Johns Hopkins, the Wall Street Journal and Drugs.com.