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Menthol and tendon pain

Let’s talk about menthol.

Menthol is a naturally occurring compound that comes from mint plants. It produces a cooling effect by stimulating the cold receptors that people have on their skin, sort of a mirror image of how capsaicin stimulates the heat receptors. Capsaicin doesn’t actually raise the temperature of anything, but if you have a mouthful of hot peppers it sure can feel like it. In the same way, menthol doesn’t actually lower the temperature, it just makes your skin feel like it’s gotten cold.

What does this have to do with tendon pain? Well, there are a lot of tendonitis “treatment” products out there, generally sprays or creams, that contain menthol. These products often claim to provide “instant relief” from tendon pain with just a quick application of the product, and usually have lots of great testimonials from people who say that it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Of course, it feels a little like putting ice on your problem area. There is a cooling sensation, which is pleasant, and after a while the area will become somewhat numb. So you feel better – at least for a while. (The critical difference here is that ice, by actually producing a lower temperature, has a beneficial effect on inflammation, whereas menthol has no such effect.)

But these sprays and creams can actually do more harm than good. For one thing, menthol has never been shown to have any real effect on the structure of tendons themselves. In other words, there is no healing action. None. If you get “relief” from the pain but still have the underlying problem, it becomes that much easier to ignore your body’s warning signs (which is what pain really is) and do something that’s really going to injure you. If that happens, you can easily go from having a painful – but healable – tendon to a ruptured tendon. And if that happens the only option is surgery.

Also, of course, since you’re not actually treating the condition, you have to keep buying the spray or cream in order to continue to experience relief. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer to actually fix the problem so I don’t become a financial slave to some company that’s putting out a “feel good” spray.

Menthol can be great for providing temporary relief for temporary conditions like sunburn, and of course it makes chewing gum, toothpaste and so on taste better. But if you’re looking for tendon pain therapy, any product that has menthol in it should be avoided. Every one that I’ve seen so far has been a scam.

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