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.
Your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant to ease muscle spasms, reduce pain, and help your muscles move better. When your muscles move better, it makes other spine pain treatments, such as physical therapy, stretching, and exercise, more effective.
Understanding Spasticity Versus Spasm
Muscle relaxants treat 2 conditions: spasticity and spasm. Spasticity is marked by long-term muscle contraction caused by a brain or spinal cord injury. Spasms, on the other hand, are localized and occur because of a musculoskeletal issue.
Prescription muscle relaxants fall into 2 groups: antispastics and antispasmodics.
- Antispastics are prescribed to treat spasticity caused by neurological disorders, such as cerebral palsy or spinal cord injury.
- Antispasmodics are used to treat occasional muscle spasms.
While some antispasmodics may treat spasticity in addition to spasms, antispastics should not be used to treat spasms.
To learn more about the distinction between spasticity and spasms, read skeletal muscle relaxants for pain management.
Muscle Relaxants for Muscle Spasms
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):
- Baclofen (Lioresal)
- Carisoprodol (Soma)
- Cyclobenzaprine (Amrix)
- Metaxalone (Skelaxin)
- Methocarbamol (Robaxin)
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.
Muscle Relaxants: Part of a Multidisciplinary Treatment Plan
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.