Mike Saunders, trainer for the New York Knicks, uses liniment on his injured players, but points out that it's difficult to say that the liniment by itself is responsible for a quicker recovery and return to action.
"Players are familiar with liniment, and they generally think that it works, which is a plus," says Saunders, "but I feel that the real role of liniment is to serve as an adjunct to other treatment. For example, the actual massaging action of rubbing in the liniment, working it into the muscles and thereby stimulating nerve fibers, seems to have a noticeable therapeutic effect. Also, combining liniment with ultrasound treatment is another way to get better results."
The most common liniments that exercisers use fall into a category called counter-irritants. Typically, they containing both menthol and methyl salicylate, a natural ingredient found in wintergreen that can be chemically formulated.
Counter-irritants do exactly what their name implies. Once they're rubbed on, the skin becomes irritated, causing surrounding blood vessels to dilate. The skin soon feels warm and, in some cases, muscular pain seems to lessen in the area as pain receptors become depressed.
This pain-dampening effect of liniment is still somewhat of a mystery but, according to Darryl Beehler, a Phoenix osteopath, counter-irritants act as a facade or smoke-screen. "They overstimulate the nerves," says Beehler, ''causing the nerve receptors to shut down somewhat."
In addition to recommending liniment to many of his patients with muscle aches, Beehler uses liniment himself before and after playing softball. ''Liniment is not a panacea, but it works very well in many cases," he says.
Though the pain-reducing qualities of liniment are often touted by manufacturers, there are few scientific studies to back up the role of liniment for that purpose. In 1970, James R. White, currently the director of the Exercise Physiology Lab at the University of California, San Diego, conducted a test with 30 people who had either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. After the 30 performed a series of light weightlifting maneuvers, a liniment was applied to the sore arms of those in one group, while the other group received a placebo cream. In each case, the placebo had no noticeable effect in reducing soreness, but the liniment produced significant improvement.
"I'm a believer in liniment," says Carla Elan, a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist from Zephyr Hills, Fla., who uses liniment when she massages her patients. "Everyone seems to comment on how fast it works and how quickly their pain or muscle soreness seems to go away," she says. When Elan combines liniment with ultrasound, a common physical-therapy tool, she gets even better results. Muscular injuries that would typically take two to three weeks to heal get better in a week or less, she says.
Should liniment be used as a warm-up aid before exercise?
"Liniment should not be used prior to a workout thinking that you've then done enough to properly warm up," notes Joan Ullyot, a San Francisco sports- medicine physician. "A proper warm-up, which could be a good slow jog, will raise overall body temperature a few degrees, warming all the muscles so you're ready to begin your workout."