Does Icy Hot Heal?

Does Icy Hot Heal?

“Pain, pain, go away. Come again another day.” This poetic verse of wishful thinking might sound a lot like a familiar nursery rhyme. For some folks, though, it might be more representative of a nightmare. But even if your pain does “come again another day,” I’m guessing it’ll probably stick around for a while—which means you might find yourself at the nearest drug store looking for relief. As you wander up and down the fluorescent light-bathed aisles, you take stock of all your options. Eventually, you end up settling for some over-the-counter pain meds and a tube of Icy Hot. With some TLC, a little massage, and that familiar cool-to-warm sensation, you’re surely on the fast-track to feeling better—right? Not so fast, hot (or icy) shot.

The anti-inflammatories you picked up at the drugstore certainly have their place in the pain relief cast of characters, but what does that Icy Hot really have to offer? Do you even know what’s in Icy Hot? Why is it so hot? And icy? Well, according to this NY Times article, when it comes to Icy Hot, “the only real benefit could be that of a placebo.” Ouch (literally).

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The Ingredients

According to Icy Hot, the ingredients contain:

  • menthol
  • a combination of menthol and camphor
  • a combination of menthol and methyl salicylate

If you read the warning labels for products like this, you’ll see that they do warn against ingestion and overuse. However, most people assume such over-the-counter remedies are 100% safe—in any quantity or application. But that’s not the case, especially when it comes to methyl salicylate. This ingredient can be toxic, and if you overuse it, you could suffer some seriously dangerous effects. According to this study, “Serious toxicity can result from exposure to small amounts of methyl salicylate.” That’s pretty frightening. Furthermore, the same study shows that if a child ingests the ingredient, the toxicity is even more severe: “In children less than 6 years of age, a teaspoon (5 mL) or less of oil of wintergreen has been implicated in several well-documented deaths.”

All risks considered, hopefully you’re following all of the manufacturer’s guidelines. If not, you could end up needing medical intervention.

The Distraction

Icy Hot is designed to divert your attention from your pain by masking it with cooling and warming sensations. While you might find the temporary distraction a welcome relief, you aren’t actually treating the source of your pain. Furthermore, this distraction can actually cause more harm than good. Pain is a cue that something in your body is amiss. And if you’re so distracted from the pain that you aren’t aware when a particular activity is causing it, you could end up injuring yourself worse. So, if your pain is impacting your daily activities, it’s best to see a medical professional who can get to the bottom of what’s hurting you.

The Placebo

As I mentioned earlier, creams like Icy Hot have been proven to offer more of a placebo effect than any true healing properties. Even so, the placebo is apparently powerful enough to keep these products on the shelves. According to this NY Times Article, in 2008, “…external analgesic rubs had approximately $275 million in sales in the United States, excluding sales at Wal-Mart.” That’s a whole lotta cash dropped on products that may—or may not—offer consumers any real relief.

How to Get Real Relief

If you’re in pain for several days without relief, don’t turn to an ineffective cream or gel. A better alternative—one that’s proven to be effective—is seeing a physical therapist (PT) for a full evaluation. Don’t have a prescription or referral? No problem. Some form of direct access is available in all 50 US states (including DC and the US Virgin Islands), which means that you can book an appointment with a PT without a physician referral. Some clinics even offer free injury screenings. That way, you can find out whether you’re injured, or simply experiencing some muscle soreness. Need help finding a PT in your area? Use our easy PT finder so you can start feeling better, faster.


Icy Hot—at its best—might feel good. However, it certainly won’t heal you if you’re faced with an injury. Furthermore, the effects its toxic ingredients can have on your body might not be worth the risk. If you agree, it might be time to give Icy Hot the cold (or hot) shoulder.

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