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Judging by the marketing claims and promises from manufacturers, you’d be inclined to believe that muscle sprays and rubs are miracle cures. Never mind a slightly swollen ankle or strained calf, by the sounds of it these products could heal a broken tibia in days!
This isn’t quite the case though.
It can be complicating trying to decipher exactly what muscle sprays and rubs do. With so many different types, each designed for a different purpose or type of injury, it’s vital you choose the one that’s right for your specific condition or injury.
Before looking at what products are best, take a glance at what muscle sprays and rubs are designed to do.
How Sprays, Rubs and Creams Work
Most of these products have the same general theory behind them. Generally, they work by drawing blood into the affected area. As you’re probably well aware, increased blood flow to an area can have a huge positive impact on recovery.
Blood carries nutrients, as well as proteins, which are responsible for building new cells and repairing and reconstructing damaged cells and muscle tissue.
These types of sprays and rubs typically make the area feel warmer.
The other type of sprays – cooling sprays, work slightly differently.
You may have been advised previously to ice an area as soon as you injure or tear it. This is sound advice, as applying cold to a muscle immediately restricts the blood flow. You’re now probably thinking - “But surely you want more blood in the area, going by what you just said?”
Well, you do, but this comes later. In the acute stages of an injury, restricting blood flow can actually be a good thing. By cutting off the blood supply, you prevent inflammation. When you cut, burn, or bruise yourself, you’ll notice that the area becomes swollen and inflamed rather rapidly, likewise when you pull a muscle.
This is inflammation, and while it’s not a bad thing, limiting it can help to reduce the pain. This is why holding a bag of ice over a recently strained or torn muscle is a good tactic. Carrying a bag of ice in your gym hold-all or sports kit bag isn't always practical though, so cold sprays and rubs can come in super handy.
The other way both hot and cold sprays, rubs, creams and gels – whatever medium you choose to use – work is by initiating the pain gate theory.
Have you ever noticed that whenever you injure a muscle, your immediate subconscious response is to grasp the area tightly? This is because sensations of pressure travel to your brain faster than sensations of pain. By applying pressure, your brain responds more to this than it does to the pain and discomfort of the injury.
The same happens with feelings of hot and cold. Extreme heat and extreme cold both send signals to your brain quicker than the nerves that pick up pain do. So while this effect doesn't directly help cure your injury, it does make you feel better at the time.