Do pain gels help?
To answer this question I am going to use the results of some Cochrane research reviews. These reviews gather together the results of lots of research projects on a subject to provide evidence based healthcare advice. Usually the experiments compare the gel to a placebo (fake) gel. If the gels give the participants significantly pain relief and substantially more than the placebo treatment they are considered effective.
Acute (new) pain
Using diclofenac gel (voltaren), ketoprofen gel, ibuprofen gel or diclofenac plaster on acute (new) pain.
7-8/10 people with a painful strain, sprain or muscle pull had much reduced pain after 7 days. 2-3/10 had the same effect with a placebo gel.
All other gels are not much better than placebo for acute pain.
Conclusion: Voltaren or ibuprofen gel may help with relieving a new painful strain, sprain or muscle pull.
For hands and knees in OA
Diclofenac gel (voltaren) and ketoprofen for 6-12 weeks reduced pain by at least half for a modest number of people.
The gel needs to be used for a long period to reduce pain for some people with OA.
Heating and cooling gels
Heating and cooling gels do not make enough of a difference for researchers to be able to recommend them. They are probably more likely to have an effect in acute pain than chronic. This does not mean they won’t work for you but it means that they do not make a big enough difference for a significant number of people compared to placebo for relieving pain.
Nerve pain after shingles
Capsaicin helps about 10% people who are experiencing nerve pain. It is most often used for the nerve pain that can linger after shingles.
As you can see the results are mixed. The research compares the effectiveness of the gels to placebos. For some people a placebo gel produces a positive effect. It may be worth trying the gels to see if they work for you. Even if it is a placebo effect. If it gives you some relief it can be worth it.