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Capsaicin Treatment: Hot Peppers for Headaches and Arthritis
by Andrea E. Gordon, M.D.


Ever rubbed your eyes after chopping hot peppers? So you know the burn isn’t limited to the taste buds.

Though it feels far from beneficial, believe it or not, peppery pain on various parts of the body can help relieve pain from arthritis, headaches and more. It all has to do with a little thing called capsaicin.


Capsaicin (cap-SAY-i-sin) is the chemical that makes peppers hot. It doesn’t damage your tongue or skin. It just fools your body into thinking it’s injured by causing certain nerves to release a chemical called substance P. (Substance P tells the nerves to send out pain signals.)

Applying capsaicin can use up the substance P in that area, thus relieving the underlying pain. Don’t worry, though; you’ll still hurt if you get injured because other nerves can carry pain signals as well. And you do have to keep using the capsaicin because the body continues to make substance P.


Capsaicin cream seems to help with the pain of arthritis, post-shingles anddiabetic neuropathy (severe nerve pain in the feet and legs). It may also help some other conditions, including:

  • psoriasis. (Use only with your healthcare provider’s supervision; don’t put it on broken skin. The same caution applies when using it for shingles.)
  • cluster headaches (excruciating, one-sided headaches that come in groups, or “clusters”). The effects can last up to one month. However, it’s not rubbed on the head but placed in the nose. (The nerves in your nose are pretty much in a direct line to those in your head.) This is very painful and only a health-care provider should do it. (Capsaicin in the nose may also work for migraines.)
  • non-allergic rhinitis (runny nose) and possibly some allergies, though the evidence for this is mixed and the discomfort (putting it in the nose) makes it less useful.
  • back pain.



Capsaicin cream is available over-the-counter under different names and strengths. A lower potency is usually recommended for musculoskeletal pain, while a higher one is for nerve pain.

The main side effect is the burning sensation, but in some people it can cause redness or swelling. (Get any extreme reaction evaluated.) The effects may lessen as you continue to use the cream. Talk to your health-care provider before using capsaicin, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. In general, the most important caution is to keep it out of your eyes. Capsaicin oleoresin is an oily extract used in pepper self-defense sprays!

Board-certified family doctor ANDREA E. GORDON, M.D., is director of integrative medicine for the Tufts University School of Medicine Family Medicine Residency program at Cambridge Health Alliance in Malden, Mass.

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in March/April 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of April 2008. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


Comments (3)add comment
written by Charlotte Chiropractor , June 18, 2011

As in any treatment, first the cause of the headache should be diagnosed, is it musculoskeletal, is it blood sugar and so on. Right treatment for the right diagnosis, better results. Good article.
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Hence the precaution
written by Danh Nguyen, MD , May 24, 2011

Vanessa, I guess that's why Dr. Gordon said to consult your doctor before using capsaicin. I'm actually not too familiar with capsaicin, except that it is an ingredient in some OTC topical pain medications.

I should try it out next time. Good article.

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written by Vanessa , April 02, 2011

I put a natural capsaicin cream basically i just took the hottest cayenne pepper they sold in the store and mix it with olive oil then put in on my neck.

Well lets just say for the first two days I was on fire. I mean fire not mild but severe but it went away.

now a week later the burning stinging pain in back. not as strong but it's irritating. How long does capsacin stay in your body?

will i ever be able to take a hot bath again or tan without reactivating the capsacin?

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