What do the three items above have in common? One key ingredient: Capsaicin.
Capsaicin is an ingredient in pepper plants, particularly the seed pod, which is responsible for the heat effect. Discovered long ago in a number of plants that are used in culinary applications as seasoning, capsaicin has been finding its way into more products.
Law enforcement personnel often use pepper spray as a non-lethal form of subduing an aggressive individual. Because the sprays are so neurologically potent, the intense pain and burning sensation is often so disruptive to the nervous system that the aggressor cannot focus his or her attention on anything else.
The key ingredient in the pepper spray is capsaicin. This chemical is responsible for triggering an immediate reaction of the sympathetic nervous system that causes the assailant to shut his eyes, increase tears and mucus secretions, and experience a profoundly uncomfortable burning sensation. The effects are temporary and begin to diminish as soon as the spray is removed.
Capsaicin does not have the same effect on all people. This is obvious to anyone that has ever watched an enraged combatant appear to be impervious to a copious application of pepper spray. Although it will send most people writhing to the ground, some people seem to be unaffected.
The effect of capsaicin is consistent in most mammals. However, birds are not affected by the chemical. Birds can eat the seeds of the pepper plant without ill effect. For this reason, hot pepper powder can be used as a deterrent to keep mammals from molesting bird feeders. Birdseed sprinkled with pepper powder ceases to be attractive to mammals.
The hot pepper ingredients can be used in other pest control measures as well. Pepper paste applied to surfaces is said to discourage climbing mammals such as raccoons.
Capsaicin has medical applications as well. It is being used more frequently as a topical application for neuralgia, arthritis and other kinds of pain. Since the capsaicin causes such anguish upon contact, why would it be useful in pain control? That is the question that researchers have only partially answered.
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the capsaicin molecule interferes with the actions of the neurotransmitter “Substance-P”. Substance-P is a chemical released in the body under certain circumstances that creates the sensation of pain. Since capsaicin inhibits or interferes with substance-P, application of capsaicin reduces the sensation of pain.
The effect is particularly helpful in reducing pain from arthritis and neuralgia. The FDA for use has just approved a new product with patients that have excruciating pain from shingles. S
hingles is a viral infection of sensory nerves that can leave the patient experiencing severe pain for years after the infection is gone.
The new capsaicin product is a patch with an 8 percent concentration of capsaicin. Considering that most current preparations contain less than 1percent concentration, this product is obviously potent.
For patients with severe pain, the patch is applied under closely controlled conditions for up to one hour. Makers claim that a one-hour treatment can result in relief for up to three months. It must be administered by health professionals because it is so potent that a local anesthetic must be used prior to the treatment.
You don’t have to wait until this new product is available to use capsaicin for relief of arthritis and muscle pain.
In my office we have been using an exceptional topical cream containing capsaicin for years with great success. We make it available for purchase by anyone. Other products containing capsaicin are available over the counter at local pharmacies.
A few words of caution are important.
Don’t get the products anywhere near the eyes, mouth or other “sensitive” spots.
Be sure to wash your hands carefully with soap before and AFTER applying the products. (You’ll likely only forget this advice once. Some lessons are learned quickly from experience!)
Often when I write about a product, people will ask me, “Does that really work?” Yes, capsaicin really does relieve pain well in many circumstances.
Just be careful and follow the directions closely.
Next week, a few timely gift ideas!
Dr. Mark Kestner