Muscle relaxers are used in addition to rest, physical therapy, and other measures to relieve discomfort. They are typically prescribed for short-term use to treat acute, painful musculoskeletal conditions. Muscle relaxers are occasionally prescribed for chronic pain (pain lasting longer than 3 months).
Muscle relaxants are medications that help reduce muscle spasms, which are involuntary muscle contractions caused by a spine-related problem, such as whiplash, fibromyalgia, or low back strain. Often, muscle spasms cause severe pain and may limit your mobility.
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Muscle relaxers are not a class of drugs—meaning they do not all have the same chemical structure or work the same way in the brain. Rather, the term muscle relaxer is used to describe a group of drugs that act as central nervous system depressants and have sedative and musculoskeletal relaxant properties.
Muscle relaxers may be prescribed to treat back pain:
Muscle relaxers are also prescribed for other conditions such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and seizure disorders.
There are several types of muscle relaxer medications commonly used to treat back pain.
Muscle relaxers are usually prescribed to treat back pain in conjunction with rest and physical therapy. Common muscle relaxants include:
Sometimes the first muscle relaxers a doctor prescribes does not work as well as expected. It may be necessary to try an alternative if the initial prescription is not effective. Many drugs interact with muscle relaxers and a person should keep their health care provider informed of all prescription and non-prescription medications he or she is taking.
There is very little research regarding which muscle relaxers are most effective, so the choice of which medication—or whether to use one at all—is based on factors such as a person’s reaction to the medication and personal preferences, potential for abuse, possible drug interactions, and adverse side effects.
9 popular muscle relaxants. How well do they work and what are their side effects? Oh, and are they affordable?
Methocarbamol (Robaxin) is a well-studied medication that treats back pain. It’s also inexpensive and relatively less sedating than other options. In recent studies where it was used for up to 8 days, 44% of folks that took methocarbamol had complete pain relief (compared to 18% who took nothing) — and that was without any serious side effects.
Taken as needed, 1500 mg every 6 to 8 hours is a cheap and well-tolerated option for sufferers of acute neck and back pain. Think of trying this first, as it is less sedating than other options, like cyclobenzaprine and carisoprodol.
At the standard dose of 10 mg to 30 mg a day, cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) will make you sleepy. If you use it during the day, you’ll want to break your 10 mg tab in half and take 5 mg to lessen the drowsiness. Interestingly, 5 mg three times a day has been shown in studies to work as well as 10 mg taken 3 times a day.
Cyclobenzaprine is a reasonable first choice because it’s a cheap generic, but the sedation side effect limits its use during the day. It may also cause more dry mouth, especially in older folks. If this is a concern, consider a better non-sedating option.
Carisoprodol (Soma) is a Schedule IV drug (similar to benzodiazepines Ativan, Valium, and Xanax) and has the potential for being abused. For this reason, you should not use it if you have a history of substance abuse.
Many believe that carisoprodol should be phased out as a muscle relaxant in favor of much better options. If prescribed, you should only use it for short periods of 2 to 3 weeks due to lack of evidence for effectiveness with longer use. It may cause drowsiness and dizziness, and it should not be used in folks over 65.
Taken as 800 mg tablets 3 to 4 times a day, metaxalone (Skelaxin) has the fewest reported side effects and lowest sedation potential of the muscle relaxants based on clinical studies. Simply put, it is the best-tolerated of the muscle relaxants.
Metaxolone is a generic alternative for the brand drug Skelaxin, but it is still pricey. Insurance companies don’t like to cover it because there are cheaper alternatives. Having said that, it works as well as cyclobenzaprine and carisoprodol with fewer side effects and less sedation—so paying cash may be worth it.
Tizanidine (Zanaflex) is often used for spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. Spasticity is where the muscles undergo continuous contraction, which leads to tightness and stiffness. In head-to-head studies with Baclofen for those conditions, tizanidine tends to have fewer side effects — but they both work just as well. This is not a first-line choice for acute neck or back muscle pain, though.
Similar to tizanidine, Baclofen is primarily used for spasticity in spinal cord injury patients or those with multiple sclerosis. Up to 20% of folks taking it have drowsiness, and there are better options for neck and back muscle pain. Also not a first choice.
Benzodiazepine medications like oxazepam and diazepam (Valium) are sometimes prescribed as muscle relaxants. However, these really aren’t recommended because they don’t work well, are sedating, and can be habit-forming. Avoid benzodiazepines for neck and back muscle pain because there are much better options.
Chlorzoxazone (Lorzone) is not well-studied for acute low back and neck pain in adults. And when investigated for pain after spine surgery, it wasn’t found to be effective. Chlorzoxazone has also been reported as a rare cause of acute liver toxicity. Don’t choose this until you’ve exhausted all other options.
For neck and back pain in adults, the first 4 medications on this list work better than orphenadrine (Norflex), so save this as another last resort in the event the others don’t work. It just hasn’t been well studied for this purpose.
Muscle spasms are painful and may restrict mobility, which can limit your ability to perform even basic activities. Painful, tight muscles can also interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.
Muscle relaxants may help reduce pain, and improve movement and range of motion, but your doctor will likely recommend that you first try acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). In some cases, these over-the-counter medications will be enough to help alleviate your pain.
If your muscle pain persists, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant in addition to your pain medication. Below are common muscle relaxants (the generic names are listed first, with a brand name example in parentheses):
Muscle relaxants for acute back or neck pain are usually prescribed to relieve short-term muscle pain—and some can be habit-forming. For these reasons, most doctors will write prescriptions with less than 2 weeks’ worth of medication. To reduce your risk of dependency or abuse, use your medication exactly as your doctor prescribes.
The most common side effects associated with muscle relaxants are drowsiness and dizziness. This is because muscle relaxants depress your central nervous system, making you less alert and attentive. As such, avoid alcohol and don’t perform tasks that require your complete attention, such as operating machinery or driving, while taking a muscle relaxant.
Muscle relaxants pose health risks when they are taken with certain medications and supplements, including opioids, sleep aid medications, and St. John’s wort. Make sure your doctor knows every medication and supplement you are taking before starting muscle relaxant therapy.
If your muscle pain doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medications, then muscle relaxants may be a good treatment option to alleviate your muscle spasms. For best results, muscle relaxants should be viewed as part of a treatment plan that may include gentle stretching, physical therapy, and exercise—not the sole treatment. As always, don’t hesitate to discuss your medications and comprehensive spine health plan with your doctor. A solid understanding of your therapeutic options is a strong defense against back pain.
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