Muscle relaxants, referred to interchangeably as muscle relaxers, are a class of prescription only medicines (POM) that are used to address muscle spasms occurring as a result of targeted disorders at a specific muscle group, or to treat spasticity – widespread spasms and contractions that occur as a result of a disorder originating in the brain or along the spinal cord.
Spasms can occur as a result of metabolic disease, nerve damage or spontaneously, whereas spasticity is usually congenital in nature, and present in persons with conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Antispasmodic Muscle Relaxants
These are the most common classes of muscle relaxers that your physician may prescribe, usually for short-term relief from muscle spasms. A large part of their action is believed to be due to their sedating effect which slows down nerve sensitivity, so that your brain does not send signals efficiently to the nerves and vice versa.
These muscle relaxants are considered centrally acting, in the sense that much of their action starts at the level of the brain and is then relayed to the specific muscles. Antispasmodic muscle relaxants are commonly prescribed following an acute injury, to help manage symptoms of back or neck pain due to whiplash, or following an injury.
They may also rarely be prescribed to treat intractable muscle pain, but for a short duration of time only.
These medications are usually only prescribed for short durations of time, after which your physician will reanalyze your condition and determine a further course of action.
List of Common Antispasmodic Muscle Relaxers
- Carisoprodol (with or without aspirin/codeine)-the most commonly prescribed muscle relaxant in the world, commonly known by the brand name SOMA. It is extremely potent and will deliver effect, but has a high potential for addiction as well, especially when taken for periods of time longer than prescribed by your physician (off label use). A person that develops an addiction to this muscle relaxant may find it impossible to sleep without first taking it, even if muscle spasms are no longer present.
Antispastic Muscle Relaxants
These types of muscle relaxants should not be used to treats spasms, but rather only conditions that affect muscle tone- which may result in prolonged tensing of muscles, preventing movement, speech, or even the ability to eat.
Common medications found in this class include:
Baclofen- this is the most common antispastic muscle relaxant, frequently used to treats muscle contraction as a result of multiple sclerosis. Its action is believed to be due to blockade of nerve signals originating from the spinal cord that causes the muscle spasms.
Dantrolene-used to manage spasticity as a result of injury to the spinal cord, stroke, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. Dantrolene does not block nerve transmission, but acts on the muscles themselves to induce relaxation.
Diazepam – better known as Valium, it serves a multitude of functions such as relieving anxiety, but also muscle spasticity and spasms from multiple causes. It also possesses sedative properties, and carries a high addiction potential.
Muscle Relaxant Precautions
Muscle relaxers are a potent category of drugs that should not be taken lightly. A few of these medications also carry the potential to be habit-forming, indicating that you should not extend the course of therapy beyond the duration for which it was prescribed.
In addition to this, there are a number of other precautions that you need to exercise while consuming any of the muscle relaxants mentioned in the list above. These include:
Avoid The Following
- Alcohol – alcohol taken in conjunction with the muscle relaxants referenced above can cause significant respiratory depression, or abnormal breathing. This can cause death as your lungs are not be able to fulfill their functions.
- Other prescription medication – these can include anti-anxiety drugs, opioid painkillers, psychotropics or antipsychotics. When taken in conjunction, they depress activity of the brain, making it so that you are only half awake at best. If you’ve ever seen the movie Wolf of Wall Street, the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio struggles to get in his car and subsequently drive best describes this.
- Sedatives – many muscle relaxants possess sedative properties of their own, which when combined with other sedatives can be lethal.
- Herbal supplements – especially those used to help initiate sleep, such as St. John’s wort or Valerian root.
Possible Side Effects
There are certain expected side effects from the consumption of muscle relaxants such as drowsiness, but there are others as well that may affect you which may not have been anticipated. These include:
Dizziness – muscle relaxers are usually prescribed to be taken before bed or when you do not have to perform focus intensive tasks as dizziness can impair you from efficiently doing so.
Agitation – muscle relaxants may increase specific neurotransmitter levels, which can contribute to anxiety or feeling of nervousness. These effects are more likely to manifest in persons diagnosed as schizophrenic or manic-depressive.
Hypotension – muscle relaxants, especially those that work at the level of the brain may cause a temporary drop in blood pressure, felt especially when changing position. Quickly raising from a prone position to a standing one may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure that could cause fainting or dizziness.
Muscle Relaxants – Summary
Even though muscle relaxants are effective in doing the job for which they are indicated, often times, especially when it comes to acute management of muscle spasms, they may not even be needed. This is because many people do not first try over-the-counter analgesics, which also possesses mild antispasmodic action that could possibly rectify their issue.
It is very important to follow dosage guidelines and precautions, and do not rely on them for their sedative properties.