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The Truth Behind Popular Remedies

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Unraveling the Truth Behind Over-the-Counter Pain Remedies

Are Catchy Marketing Claims Backed by Solid Evidence?

Imagine testimonials of people experiencing a life-changing impact from a cream applied to their sore joints, or sports heroes vouching for an over-the-counter cream that relieves their aches and pains. These types of claims are commonly seen in advertisements for over-the-counter pain remedies. However, is there substantial evidence to support these bold assertions? Let's take a closer look at three popular products frequently advertised on television.

The Products in Question

1. Blue-Emu: Marketed as a solution for muscle, joint, or back pain. The company claims that their products can provide relief while ensuring you don't end up smelling like a locker room. The ingredients listed on their various versions of the product include glucosamine, aloe vera, and emu oil. However, for their specific products like Blue-Emu Maximum Arthritis Pain Relief and Blue-Emu Ultra with Hemp Seed Oil, the active ingredient is trolamine salicylate, similar to aspirin. Blue-Emu Lidocaine Dry Patch includes lidocaine as the active numbing agent.

2. Australian Dream: Marketed to help with joint or back pain, Australian Dream is a cream that both arthritis sufferers and long-time athletes rely on. The product boasts a natural blend of ingredients, with emu oil being one of them. The key active ingredient, however, is histamine hydrochloride—a topical pain reliever. According to the manufacturer, histamine hydrochloride temporarily increases blood vessel size, enhancing circulation and effectively reducing pain in muscles and joints.

3. Theraworx: Targeting sore muscles, muscle cramps, and joint pain, Theraworx claims to offer relief even before muscle cramps start. The product is available in a foam form. One of its active ingredients is olibanum, derived from boswellia trees (also known as frankincense oil). Alongside olibanum, Theraworx contains 20 other ingredients, including calcium, aloe, and grapefruit extract. For muscle cramps and spasms, Theraworx Relief uses magnesium sulfate as its active component. However, there is limited evidence suggesting the effectiveness of magnesium sulfate when applied topically for common muscle cramps.

Do These Products Live Up to Their Promises?

Assessing the success of these products depends on the criteria used: customer ratings, website reviews, or results from studies on individuals with similar symptoms. While there are studies involving rodents or laboratory experiments, none of the manufacturer's ads or websites provide sufficient details about studies demonstrating the efficacy of their products on humans.

Let's examine a few examples:

  • Theraworx Relief for Muscle Cramps and Spasms: The product's advertisement mentions two studies indicating that 60% of 84 participants experienced improvements in muscle cramps and spasms. However, crucial information about these studies, such as duration, comparison with a placebo, and treatment timeframe, remains undisclosed. Further questioning and personal information submission are required for healthcare professionals to access additional information.
  • Blue-Emu: Studies on trolamine salicylate, the active ingredient in Blue-Emu, are limited to small, short-term trials conducted decades ago. Overall, the results of these studies are inconclusive and fail to support the claims made in their ads.
  • Australian Dream: The product's marketing suggests that it contains an FDA-approved ingredient, histamine dihydrochloride. However, there is minimal research supporting its pain-relieving properties. The claims made regarding blood vessel dilation and pain relief in joints and muscles lack substantial evidence. In fact, applying ice, which constricts blood vessels, remains a more effective method for pain relief.

Emu Oil and FDA Oversight

Both Blue-Emu and Australian Dream incorporate emu oil into their products. Studies have explored the potential benefits of emu oil in wound healing and inflammation reduction, yet there is insufficient evidence to support its effectiveness as a pain reliever in humans.

While the FDA does not directly evaluate the safety and effectiveness of these products, it can initiate recalls if they are found to be unsafe. The Federal Trade Commission oversees the advertising of over-the-counter remedies. However, due to the sheer number of products on the market, it becomes challenging for both agencies to keep up with every single item.

The Final Verdict

Manufacturers of well-studied products with proven benefits are typically transparent about sharing study results that demonstrate effectiveness. The fact that none of these product manufacturers provide such information raises skepticism.

If you are already experiencing positive results using Blue-Emu, Australian Dream, or Theraworx, that's great! However, it's essential to recognize the lack of substantial evidence supporting their claims.

If you are considering trying one of these products for the first time, you may want to reconsider. Despite convincing advertisements, the available evidence, in my expert opinion, is inconclusive.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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