Muscle relaxants sound like simple drugs to ease neck pain or back pain caused by muscle cramps. But they're far from straightforward.
There are many muscle relaxants, and each one works a little differently. At the same time, they're all incredibly potent and capable of causing different side effects, depending on which drug you use.
It takes the expertise of interventional pain management specialist Dr. Edward Carden to determine when you should take a muscle relaxant and to decide which one is best for your unique health challenge. In this blog, we give you the basics about muscle relaxants and how we use them.
When to take muscle relaxants
When you have neck or back pain and need medication, your treatment begins with over-the-counter pain relievers. If these medications don't provide relief or if you have severe muscle-spasm pain, we may prescribe muscle relaxants.
Because muscle relaxants are such powerful medications, we prescribe them for only a short time. The goal of using a muscle relaxant is to give you quick relief from the intense pain and limited mobility of two muscle conditions, spasticity and muscle spasms.
Conditions that muscle relaxants treat
You may need to take muscle relaxants if you have spasticity or a local muscle spasm. Both conditions cause pain due to muscle contractions, but they have different causes and they're treated with varying types of muscle relaxants.
Normal movement occurs when some muscles contract (tighten) while others relax. Spasticity causes stiffness and interferes with movement when all the muscles in a body area contract at the same time.
Spasticity develops when the nerves responsible for muscle movement become damaged. The nerve damage may occur in your brain or spinal cord, or it could affect the motor nerves carrying messages directly to the muscles.
Many medical conditions cause spasticity, including:
- Cerebral palsy
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spinal cord injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
In addition to pain, the muscle tightness arising from spasticity makes it difficult to walk or talk and causes joint deformities, unusual posture, and abnormal reflexes. Spasticity may also lead to muscle spasms.
Spasms, commonly called cramps, are limited to one small group of muscle fibers, often in your arms or legs. Localized spasms occur when the muscles suddenly contract, due to problems such as:
- Sports injuries
- Muscle strain
- Intense exercise
- Herniated discs
- Spinal stenosis
- Tired muscles
- Certain medications
- Kidney failure
Some spasms go away quickly; others last a long time. No matter how long they last, they're all painful.
How to take muscle relaxants
Muscle relaxants are a class of drugs with many medications in the class. The different medications belong to one of two categories: antispastics (drugs that treat spasticity) and antispasmodics (drugs that treat localized muscle spasms).
We initially prescribe a low dose and then gradually increase it if needed to ease your pain. Because each muscle relaxant works in a different way, and each person metabolizes drugs differently, we can’t predict how you’ll initially respond.
The best way to take your medication depends on the specific drug we prescribe. Most muscle relaxants come in the form of a tablet or capsule, though a few are injected. You typically take oral muscle relaxants 3-4 times daily.
Common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, upset stomach, and headaches. They may also affect your ability to think or cause confusion. Never drink alcohol while taking muscle relaxants.
You can become addicted to some muscle relaxants. The risk of dependency increases the longer you use them, which is why we only prescribe them for a short time. Some types of muscle relaxants aren’t safe for older adults, pregnant women, or people with liver disease, heart disease, or glaucoma.
This information is not comprehensive, but it gives you general information about the many aspects of muscle relaxants.
If you have questions about effective pain management or need to schedule an appointment for muscle-related back or neck pain, call Edward Carden, MD, or book an appointment online today.