Menthol from peppermint is a key ingredient in tiger balm.Karl Tapales/Getty Images
  • Tiger balm is a topical cream developed by a Chinese herbalist in the 1870s.
  • It contains ingredients like menthol, camphor, methyl salicylate, cassia oil, and capsicum.
  • These ingredients can act as an expectorant and help muscle pain, headaches, arthritis pain.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

If you're looking for a pill-free way to relieve pain, you can try out herbal solutions such as Tiger Balm. This topical product consisting of natural pain-relieving ingredients was formulated by a Chinese herbalist named Aw Chu Kin in the 1870s. His sons took over the business and helped the product gain popularity in Asia, and of course, Tiger Balm eventually made its way to the west.

Tiger Balm is available in multiple different formulations, ranging from extra strength ointments to pain-relieving hydrogel patches, so you can choose which product is best for the ailments you're facing.

Here's what makes Tiger Balm work, and four usages for it.

What are the ingredients? 

The ingredients of Tiger Balm work together to increase circulation, reduce inflammation, and produce cooling sensations, says Tom Ingegno DACM, MSOM, Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at Charm City Integrative Health

Formulations may vary depending on the exact Tiger Balm product, but Ingegno says ingredients typically include:

Tiger Balm works by the counterirritant theory of pain control, says s Elizabeth Gardner, MD, orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Yale Medicine and associate professor of orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine.

Gardner says counterirritants work by:

  1. Causing mild irritation on the skin, which distracts the brain from the sensation of pain.
  2. This stimulates sensory receptors on the skin, which dulls pain receptors.

Basically, when your skin feels tingly and warm or cool, this confuses the nervous system and ultimately results in decreased sensations of pain.

Tiger balm uses

Here are four common uses of tiger balm:

1. Muscle pain

Gardner says that tiger balm can help muscle pain in a number of ways:

  • Camphor and menthol can increase blood circulation to the muscles and surrounding area. This may reduce inflammation and therefore provide pain relief.
  • Methyl salicylate can act as a numbing agent, which may dull the pain.
  • Capsicum may block nerve pain receptors, reducing the severity of muscle pain

A 2010 study found that in people with mild to moderate muscle strain, using a patch containing methyl salicylate and menthol resulted in a 40% greater pain reduction versus a placebo.

2. Headaches

Common headaches can be alleviated with Tiger Balm, due to its pain-relieving properties, Ingegno says. 

You can rub the Tiger Balm into your temples, and even onto your neck and shoulders as well, especially if you're experiencing tension headaches, Ingegno says.

A small 2010 study found that topical menthol was superior to a placebo at relieving pain during a migraine attack, as well as relieving associated symptoms like nausea and light sensitivity.

3. Arthritis pain

Although many rub tiger balm on areas that are affected by arthritis, Gardner says the exact mechanism of how it works for the condition is unknown. But it may be due to the anti-inflammatory effects of menthol, capsicum, and cassia oil.

It may also be due to the fact that Tiger Balm is a counterirritant, temporarily distracting you from arthritis pain. 

A 2018 animal study found that cassia extract reduced joint swelling in rats with formaldehyde-induced arthritis, suggesting that cassia has anti-arthritic properties.

4. Cough and cold

Tiger Balm can be used for more than just pain. 

Gardner says camphor acts as a mild decongestant, cough suppressant, and expectorant  —a substance that helps remove mucus from your airways.

Furthermore, menthol also works to suppress coughs, and can also soothe irritated nasal and sinus pathways, says Gardner. In fact, 2012 study found that inhaling menthol vapor can decrease cough reflex sensitivity, suppressing coughs.

When using Tiger Balm for this purpose, rub it on your chest, throat, and a tiny bit under your nose to experience symptom relief.

Insider's takeaway

Overall, more research in the way of larger-scale human studies is needed to determine how effective Tiger Balm is for various ailments. However, Tiger Balm is generally safe to use, so it doesn't hurt to give it a shot and see if it works for you.

Read the original article on Insider