If you have neck or back pain, or you’re dealing with some other condition that causes muscle spasms, your doctor might prescribe a muscle relaxer (or muscle relaxant) for you.

muscle relaxant
muscle relaxant

Having a muscle spasm means that one or more of your muscles is contracting and the twitching or cramping is out of your control. It can happen for a lot of different reasons, and can sometimes be very painful.

While there are many different treatments for pain, your doctor may decide that a muscle relaxer is the best solution for you.

Muscle relaxers, or muscle relaxants, are medications used to treat muscle spasms or muscle spasticity.

Muscle spasms or cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions of a muscle or group of muscles. They can be caused by too much muscle strain and lead to pain. They’re associated with conditions such as lower back pain, neck pain, and fibromyalgia.

Muscle spasticity, on the other hand, is a continuous muscle spasm that causes stiffness, rigidity, or tightness that can interfere with normal walking, talking, or movement. Muscle spasticity is caused by injury to parts of the brain or spinal cord involved with movement. Conditions that can cause muscle spasticity include multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Prescription drugs can help relieve the pain and discomfort from muscle spasms or spasticity. In addition, certain over-the-counter medications may be used to treat aches and pains associated with muscle spasms.

When You Might Need a Muscle Relaxer

Your doctor might first suggest you try an over-the-counter medicine like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to treat your pain. But if those don’t work, or you can’t take them because you have another issue like liver problems or ulcers, you may need to try a muscle relaxant.

Muscle relaxants are ideally prescribed for acute rather than chronic pain. They may be an option if pain is preventing you from getting enough sleep. Because muscle relaxants cause drowsiness, they can help you get rest when you take them at night.

Side Effects

No matter what kind of muscle relaxer you take, you’ll experience one or more side effects. Some muscle relaxants, however, can have potentially serious side effects, like liver damage. Your doctor will work with you to find the medication that makes the most sense for your situation.

The most common side effects include:

      • Tiredness, drowsiness, or sedation effect
      • Fatigue or weakness
      • Dizziness
      • Dry mouth
      • Depression
      • Decreased blood pressure

You shouldn’t drink alcohol while taking muscle relaxants. These medications make it hard to think and function normally, even if you take a low dose, so combining them with alcohol can increase your risk of an accident.

You also shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery while taking muscle relaxants. Some muscle relaxers start working within 30 minutes of taking them, and the effects can last anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.

Addiction and Abuse

Muscle relaxants can be addictive for some people. Taking them without a prescription, or taking more than your doctor has recommended, can increase your chances of becoming addicted. So can using them over a long period of time.

Almost all cases of addiction and abuse are due to the drug carisoprodol (Soma), which is considered a schedule IV controlled substance. That’s because when the drug breaks down in your body, it produces a substance called meprobamate that acts like a tranquilizer. People who become addicted to carisoprodol sometimes abuse the drug because it makes them feel relaxed.

Other kinds of muscle relaxants may be addictive too. Cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) has also been linked to misuse and abuse.

With prolonged use you can become physically dependent on some muscle relaxants. This means that without the medication, you can have withdrawl symptoms. You may have insomnia, vomiting or anxiety when you stop taking it.

Prescription medications

Prescription medications are divided into two groups: antispasmodics and antispastics. Antispasmodics are used to treat muscle spasms, and antispastics are used to treat muscle spasticity. Some antispasmodics, such as tizanidine, can be used to treat muscle spasticity. However, antispastics should not be used to treat muscle spasms.

Antispasmodics: Centrally acting skeletal muscle relaxants (SMRs)

Centrally acting SMRs are used in addition to rest and physical therapy to help relieve muscle spasms. They’re thought to work by causing a sedative effect or by preventing your nerves from sending pain signals to your brain.

You should only use these muscle relaxants for up to 2 or 3 weeks. The safety of longer-term use is not yet known.

While antispasmodics can be used to treat muscle spasms, they have not been shown to work better than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen. In addition, they have more side effects than NSAIDs or acetaminophen.

The more common side effects of centrally acting SMRs include:

  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • nervousness
  • reddish-purple or orange urine
  • lowered blood pressure upon standing

You should talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of these medications for the treatment of your muscle spasms.

List of centrally acting SMRs

Generic name Brand name Form Generic available
carisoprodol Soma tablet yes
carisoprodol/aspirin not available tablet yes
carisoprodol/aspirin/codeine not available tablet yes
chlorzoxazone Parafon Forte, Lorzone tablet yes
cyclobenzaprine Fexmid, Flexeril, Amrix tablet, extended-release capsule tablet only
metaxalone Skelaxin, Metaxall tablet yes
methocarbamol Robaxin tablet yes
orphenadrine Norflex extended-release tablet yes
tizanidine Zanaflex tablet, capsule yes

Antispastics

Antispastics are used to treat muscle spasticity. They should not be used to treat muscle spasms. These drugs include:

Baclofen: Baclofen (Lioresal) is used to relieve spasticity caused by MS. It’s not fully understood how it works, but it seems to block nerve signals from the spinal cord that cause muscles to spasm. Side effects can include drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue.

Dantrolene: Dantrolene (Dantrium) is used to treat muscle spasms caused by spinal cord injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, or MS. It works by acting directly on the skeletal muscle to relax the muscle spasm. Side effects can include drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and fatigue.

Diazepam: Diazepam (Valium) is used to relieve muscle spasms caused by inflammation, trauma, or muscle spasticity. It works by increasing the activity of a certain neurotransmitter to decrease the occurrence of muscle spasms. Diazepam is a sedative. Side effects can include drowsiness, fatigue, and muscle weakness.

List of antispastics

Generic name Brand name Form Generic available
baclofen Lioresal, Gablofen, Lioresal tablet, injection yes
dantrolene Dantrium tablet yes
diazepam Valium oral suspension, tablet, injection yes
Warnings for prescription muscle relaxants

Muscle relaxants such as carisoprodol and diazepam can be habit forming. Be sure to take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor.

Muscle relaxants can also cause withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures or hallucinations (sensing things that aren’t real). Do not suddenly stop taking your medication, especially if you’ve been taking it for a long time.

Also, muscle relaxants depress your central nervous system (CNS), making it hard to pay attention or stay awake. While taking a muscle relaxant, avoid activities that require mental alertness or coordination, such as driving or using heavy machinery.

You should not take muscle relaxants with:

  • alcohol
  • CNS depressant drugs, such as opioids or psychotropics
  • sleeping medications
  • herbal supplements such as St. John’s wort

Talk to your doctor about how you can safely use muscle relaxants if you:

  • are older than 65 years
  • have a mental health problem or brain disorder
  • have liver problems
Off-label medications for spasticity

Doctors can use certain medications to treat spasticity even when the drugs are not approved for that purpose by the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA). This is called off-label drug use. The following drugs are not actually muscle relaxants, but they can still help relieve symptoms of spasticity.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are sedatives that can help relax muscles. They work by increasing the effects of certain neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that relay messages between your brain cells.

Examples of benzodiazepines include:

  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • alprazolam (Xanax)

Side effects of benzodiazepines can include drowsiness and problems with balance and memory. These drugs can also be habit forming.

Clonidine

Clonidine (Kapvay) is thought to work by preventing your nerves from sending pain signals to your brain or by causing a sedative effect.

Clonidine should not be used with other muscle relaxants. Taking it with similar drugs increases your risk of side effects. For instance, taking clonidine with tizanidine can cause very low blood pressure.

Clonidine is available in brand-name and generic versions.

Gabapentin

Gabapentin (Neurontin) is an anticonvulsant drug typically used to relieve seizures. It’s not fully known how gabapentin works to relieve muscle spasticity. Gabapentin is available in brand-name and generic versions.

Over-the-counter options for muscle spasms

OTC treatment is recommended as first-line therapy for muscle spasms caused by conditions such as acute lower back pain or tension headache. This means you should try OTC treatments before prescription medications.

OTC treatment options include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, or a combination of both. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you choose an OTC treatment.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs work by blocking your body from making certain substances that cause inflammation and pain. NSAIDs are available in generic and brand-name versions. They’re typically sold over the counter. Stronger versions are available by prescription.

NSAIDs come as oral tablets, capsules, or suspensions. They also come as chewable tablets for children. Side effects of these drugs can include upset stomach and dizziness.

Examples of NSAIDs include:

  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • naproxen (Aleve)

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is thought to work by blocking your body from making certain substances that cause pain. Acetaminophen is available in generic and brand-name versions. It comes as immediate-release and extended release oral tablets and capsules, orally disintegrating tablets, chewable tablets, and oral solutions.

The more common side effects of acetaminophen can include nausea and upset stomach.

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