Topical capsaicin 0.075% was evaluated for the treatment of the painful joints of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) in a 4 week double blind, placebo controlled randomized trial. Twenty-one patients were selected, all of whom had either RA (n = 7) or OA (n = 14) with painful involvement of the hands. Assessments of pain (visual analog scale), functional capacity, morning stiffness, grip strength, joint swelling and tenderness (dolorimeter) were performed before randomization. Treatment was applied to each painful hand joint 4 times daily with reassessment at 1, 2 and 4 weeks after entry. One subject did not complete the study. Capsaicin reduced tenderness (p less than 0.02) and pain (p less than 0.02) associated with OA, but not RA as compared with placebo. A local burning sensation was the only adverse effect noted. These findings suggest that topical capsaicin is a safe and potentially useful drug for the treatment of painful OA of the hands.