Be it to alleviate pain due to arthritis, osteoarthritis or muscle pain due to a sport injury, many turn to analgesic rubs as an alternative or a complement to oral medication. An analysis however shows that there is very little evidence that the most popular rubs, those containing salicylates, are truly effective.
The analysis reviewed sixteen studies (totalling 1300 patients) comparing the efficacy of salicylate-based rubs to placebos (rubs with no active ingredient). The researchers concluded that the data did not show the salicylate rubs to be more effective than the placebos, both against chronic and acute pain. Remember though that there are several types of analgesic rubs and other types may be more effective.
Even though the efficacy of salicylate rubs is not proven, many people do get relief from their use. The rubbing motion used to apply the product as well as the feeling of warmth that comes from ingredients such as menthol or camphor can bring some relief. If you find relief from their use, do continue to use them!