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What Is Capsaicin? 9 Topical Uses and Benefits

Written by Dr. Group, DC Founder
A silver bowl filled with chili powder. Capsaicin is an extract that comes from chili that boasts analgesic properties.

Capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) comes from chili peppers (Capsicum spp.) and gives them their heat.[1] Capsaicin has a lot to offer, and its analgesic properties are at the top of the list.[2] Analgesics are a type of pain reliever and include acetaminophen, a non-aspirin pain reliever, which is the active ingredient in brands like Tylenol, Paracetamol, and Panadol.

If you're a trivia buff or preparing for an upcoming appearance on Jeopardy! you might be happy to know that capsaicin is a vanilloid compound[3] and belongs to the vanillyl group.[1, 4] Aside from providing the hot taste chili peppers are known for, capsaicin is responsible for many amazing health benefits. Capsaicin is a capsaicinoid, which is a compound present in the capsicum family of plants. Aside from capsaicin, the most common of these compounds include dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin, homocapsaicin, and homodihydrocapsaicin.[5].

One use for capsaicin that extends back centuries is as a means to control joint and muscle discomfort.[6] Capsaicin is a neuropeptide-active agent; it affects the synthesis, storage, transport, and release of substance P - a polypeptide. Substance P is a chemical mediator of pain impulses along the central nervous system. When substance P enters joint tissue, it causes inflammation and contributes to rheumatoid arthritis.

Capsaicin helps relieve pain by preventing the accumulation of substance P in peripheral sensory neurons. When there is less substance P in the nerve endings, pain impulses are not transmitted to the brain. Essentially, capsaicin prevents your brain from receiving the impulses that would otherwise make you feel pain.

History of Capsaicin

Capsaicin was first isolated by John Clough Thresh. The exact chemical structure of capsaicin was determined by E. K. Nelson in 1919. It was synthesized by Ernst Spath and Stephen F. Darling in 1930.[7] Although those technical advances are recent, chili peppers have been used in one way or another for over 6,000 years.[8] The analgesic properties of chili peppers have been appreciated by cultures around the world. Native Americans, in particular, were known to rub their gums with chili pepper pods to relieve tooth pain. Culinary applications are also common. Chili peppers were used as a weapon by the Incas against the Spaniards. In recent years, law enforcement has taken to using capsaicin-based pepper spray.[9]

9 Health Benefits of Capsaicin

Significant amounts of research have confirmed the impressive benefits of capsaicin. Medline lists almost 2900 research mentions of capsaicin in scientific literature published between 1991 and 1999 alone.

Although not comprehensive of everything this compound has to offer, here are nine impressive benefits.

  1. A 1986 study found patients with moderate or severe psoriasis who applied capsaicin topically experienced significant reductions in burning, stinging, itching, and redness of the skin over a six-week period.[10]
  2. Capsaicin may help with atopic dermatitis.[11]
  3. A 1991 study found capsaicin may be an effective remedy for arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis patients who received capsaicin cream for painful knees experienced mean reductions in pain of 57% and 33%, respectively, after 4 weeks.[12]
  4. Capsaicin helps with chronic back pain.[13]
  5. Capsaicin may relieve chronic soft tissue pain.[13]
  6. Capsaicin may provide relief for neuropathic pain.[14][15]
  7. Capsaicin may play a role in suppressing prostate cancer cells.[16]
  8. Oral capsaicin can provide pain relief for oral mucositis in patients undergoing chemotherapy.[17]
  9. Capsaicin may help fight obesity by increasing feelings of fullness to reduce calorie and fat intake.[18][19]

Using Capsaicin in Topical Applications

Topical capsaicin products are common and used to alleviate sore muscles and joints.[20] It can be found in creams, lotions, gels, nasal sprays, and patches. When using a capsaicin ointment, a slight burning or itching sensation is common but temporary. Wash your hands thoroughly after application to avoid spreading the ointment to sensitive areas such as the eyes.

References (20)
  1. "Capsaicin." The PubChem Project. NIH, n.d. Web. 06 July 2016.
  2. "Capsaicin." General Fact Sheet. National Pesticide Information Center, n.d. Web. 06 July 2016.
  3. "Vanilloid." PubMed. The Vanilloid Receptor : A Molecular Gateway to the Pain Pathway
  4. Arpad Szallasi, MD, PhD. Vanilloid (Capsaicin) Receptors in Health and Disease. Am J Clin Pathol 2002;118:110-121.
  5. "Capsaicinoids - What Makes Chillies Hot." The Chemistry of Chilli Peppers. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 July 2016.
  6. Fusco BM, Giacovazzo M. Peppers and pain. The promise of capsaicin. Drugs. 1997 Jun;53(6):909-14.
  7. Arpad Szallasi1 and Peter M. Blumberg. "Vanilloid (Capsaicin) Receptors and Mechanisms." Pharmacol Rev June 1, 1999 51:159-212; published online June 1, 1999.
  8. "Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum Spp. L.) in the Americas." Science Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 July 2016.
  9. Barry JD, Hennessy R, McManus JG Jr. A randomized controlled trial comparing treatment regimens for acute pain for topical oleoresin capsaicin (pepper spray) exposure in adult volunteers. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2008 Oct-Dec;12(4):432-7. doi: 10.1080/10903120802290786.
  10. Bernstein JE, Parish LC, Rapaport M, Rosenbaum MM, Roenigk HH Jr. Effects of topically applied capsaicin on moderate and severe psoriasis vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1986 Sep;15(3):504-7.
  11. Lee JH, Lee YS, Lee EJ, Lee JH, Kim TY. Capsiate Inhibits DNFB-Induced Atopic Dermatitis in NC/Nga Mice through Mast Cell and CD4+ T-Cell Inactivation. J Invest Dermatol. 2015 Aug;135(8):1977-85. doi: 10.1038/jid.2015.117. Epub 2015 Mar 25.
  12. Deal CL, Schnitzer TJ, Lipstein E, Seibold JR, Stevens RM, Levy MD, Albert D, Renold F. Treatment of arthritis with topical capsaicin: a double-blind trial. Clin Ther. 1991 May-Jun;13(3):383-95.
  13. Chrubasik S, Weiser T, Beime B. Effectiveness and safety of topical capsaicin cream in the treatment of chronic soft tissue pain. Phytother Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):1877-85. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3335.
  14. Kamchatnov PR, Evzelman MA, Abusueva BA, Volkov AI. [Capsaicin in treatment of neuropathic pain]. Zh Nevrol Psikhiatr Im S S Korsakova. 2014;114(11):139-44.
  15. Derry S, Sven-Rice A, Cole P, Tan T, Moore RA. Topical capsaicin (high concentration) for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Feb 28;(2):CD007393. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007393.pub3.
  16. Díaz-Laviada I1. Effect of capsaicin on prostate cancer cells. Future Oncol. 2010 Oct;6(10):1545-50. doi: 10.2217/fon.10.117.
  17. Berger A, Henderson M, Nadoolman W, Duffy V, Cooper D, Saberski L, Bartoshuk L. Oral capsaicin provides temporary relief for oral mucositis pain secondary to chemotherapy/radiation therapy. J Pain Symptom Manage. 1995 Apr;10(3):243-8.
  18. Janssens PL, Hursel R, Martens EA, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Acute effects of capsaicin on energy expenditure and fat oxidation in negative energy balance. PLoS One. 2013 Jul 2;8(7):e67786. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0067786. Print 2013.
  19. MS Westerterp-Plantenga, A Smeets and MPG Lejeune. Sensory and gastrointestinal satiety effects of capsaicin on food intake. International Journal of Obesity (2005) 29, 682–688. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802862 Published online 21 December 2004.
  20. P. Anand, and K. Bley. Topical capsaicin for pain management: therapeutic potential and mechanisms of action of the new high-concentration capsaicin 8% patch. Br J Anaesth. 2011 Oct; 107(4): 490–502.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.


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