Why You Should Think Twice Before Taking Muscle Relaxers

While the term muscle relaxer is well known, the type of medications used in muscle relaxers is not always common knowledge. These medications are typically given for intense pain, including back pain, in an effort to relax the muscles causing the discomfort. However, there is much more to muscle relaxers than some people might realize. 

There are two classifications of muscle relaxers: antispastics and antispasmodics (via Medical News Today). Though they sound similar, they are used for different reasons.

Antispasmodics fall into two categories: benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines. While benzodiazepines block chemicals in the brain to relax the muscle, nonbenzodiazepines work on the brain and spinal cord. Popular nonbenzodiazepines include carisoprodol (Soma) and cyclobenzaprine (Fexmid, Flexeril, Amrix). Commonly used benzodiazepines include clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), and alprazolam (Xanax).

Antispastics treat muscle spasticity, a condition that causes muscles to tighten and cause pain. These drugs work differently depending on the specific medication (via Healthline). Baclofen (Lioresal) blocks nerve signals in the spinal cord, dantrolene (Dantrium) helps skeletal muscles relax to ease a spasm, and diazepam (Valium) increases neurotransmitter activity to relieve a muscle spasm, inflammation, or trauma.

When you are suffering from pain, you naturally want to take something to make it go away, but before you take a muscle relaxer, there are some things you should know.

Here's when muscle relaxers are prescribed

Typically, doctors prescribe muscle relaxers when muscles are involuntary twitching, resulting in spasms that may be very painful, or when muscles are stiffened, which also causes pain, often in the neck and lower back (via WebMD). They are also sometimes prescribed when you can't sleep due to spasms. 

However, the first line of defense when encountering muscle spasms and pain is to try natural relief methods, such as icing the area, resting, eating well, and drinking enough. Doctors also advise taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) before taking muscle relaxers (via National Spine & Pain Centers). These over-the-counter medications can also reduce inflammation which may help alleviate pain. Interestingly, antispasmodics have not been found to provide any more relief for muscle spasms than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen (via Healthline).

If lifestyle modifications and OTC medicines aren't working, your doctor may then resort to prescribing muscle relaxers. However, they do have some side effects that should be considered before you start taking them.

The side effects of muscle relaxers

When you take muscle relaxers, you will be required to modify your daily activity. Side effects are common and they range from being uncomfortable to dangerous. The main side effects of muscle relaxers are drowsiness, dizziness, and sleepiness, which makes driving, operating machinery, and in some cases, working impossible (via Spine-health). You also shouldn't make any important decisions when taking muscle relaxers.

Other side effects include decreased blood pressure, which can become serious if you are elderly, ill, or already have low pressure. These medications can also impact a person's mental health, causing irritability, agitation, anxiety, and depression. Even more serious, muscle relaxers can cause addiction and dependence. For this reason, they are typically only prescribed for acute pain, not chronic pain (via American Addiction Centers).

While muscle relaxers can help relieve intense pain, they shouldn't be the first option and should only be used for short-term relief.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).