Capsaicin is found naturally in red chili peppers, giving the vegetable its distinguishing, pungent, spicy-hot sting. The ingredient is the active chemical in certain medications like skin pain patches and topical anesthetic creams used for treating muscle pain, neuralgia and arthritis. It is less commonly used as an experimental liquid subcutaneous medication for treating diabetes and certain forms of cancer. The benefits of capsaicin are plenteous, especially since the risks of capsaicin are very low and the side effects are few. Capsaicin does not cure disease, but it does relieve pain associated with disease. In a study conducted by the Case Western Reserve University of Ohio, 80 percent of arthritis sufferers felt pain relief after two weeks of capsaicin treatment.
The chemical works by interfering with nerve receptor transmissions from the spinal cord and throughout the body. Applied topically, capsaicin is absorbed through the skin and provides minor relief for such painful conditions as neuralgia, or nerve pain, from the herpes zoster virus and after surgery. It also works for sudden and severe bouts of cluster headaches, for canker sores from post-radiation cancer treatment, and as a steroid replacement for such skin conditions as psoriasis. Capsaicin is also used as a pain reliever for arthritis, although it usually takes several weeks of continual use before the arthritis sufferer receives any relief.
Uses of capsaicin for diseases such as diabetes and cancer remains in experimental form. Scientists have discovered that chemical compounds in capsaicin may treat diabetes and nerve inflammation. Studies performed by the American Cancer Institute show that capsaicin injected into mice with prostate cancer reduced tumors in the cancer cells, causing the cells to self-implode. The benefits of capsaicin for treating more serious, chronic and debilitating disease remains to be seen.
While capsaicin drug interactions are minimal, it may irritate sensitive patients or interfere with the body's ability to synthesize other drugs. Some patients are allergic to capsaicin, and capsaicin on the eyes or mucus membranes of the body may react with extreme swelling, burning, itching and respiratory problems. While rare, overdoses of capsaicin can be lethal. Patients with high blood pressure or heart problems should defer to a medical professional before using capsaicin skin patches for pain. Overall, the benefits of capsaicin outweigh the risks for most pain sufferers.