The neuropeptide substance P has been implicated in the pathogenesis of inflammation and pain in arthritis. In this double-blind randomized study, 70 patients with osteoarthritis (OA) and 31 with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) received capsaicin (a substance P depletor) or placebo for four weeks. The patients were instructed to apply 0.025% capsaicin cream or its vehicle (placebo) to painful knees four times daily. Pain relief was assessed using visual analog scales for pain and relief, a categorical pain scale, and physicians' global evaluations. Most of the patients continued to receive concomitant arthritis medications. Significantly more relief of pain was reported by the capsaicin-treated patients than the placebo patients throughout the study; after four weeks of capsaicin treatment, RA and OA patients demonstrated mean reductions in pain of 57% and 33%, respectively. These reductions in pain were statistically significant compared with those reported with placebo (P = 0.003 and P = 0.033, respectively). According to the global evaluations, 80% of the capsaicin-treated patients experienced a reduction in pain after two weeks of treatment. Transient burning was felt at the sites of drug application by 23 of the 52 capsaicin-treated patients; two patients withdrew from treatment because of this side effect. It is concluded that capsaicin cream is a safe and effective treatment for arthritis.