Muscle relaxers for pain management: Drug side effects and risks
Prescription and over the counter muscle relaxants for back pain relief
Muscle relaxers are helpful when strong muscle spasm and severe back and neck pain start after injury or arthritic flare up. In these cases the tight muscles are a protective response that becomes excessive and can generate as much and more pain as the original back problem. For acute muscle spasm and pain muscle relaxants will reduce pain, muscle tension, and improve general range of motion and ability to move with less pain.
Sometimes the intense and uncontrollable contraction of a muscle is so strong that it interferes with any healing and recovery that would otherwise be made. To get ahead of the cause of the pain it is sometimes necessary to use a prescription muscle relaxer to calm things down so healing can begin.
The problem with all prescription drug muscle relaxers is they are all sedatives and suppress the central nervous system, and therefore the entire body, in ways that are not intended or desirable; they do not work locally only on the painful and spastic muscles, but on the entire body. For this reason, the benefits of improved pain, tension and mobility come at the expense of serious side effects and potential dangers that are common to this group of drugs.
To avoid these serious draw backs many people use a natural over the counter muscle relaxant. But with this category of Alternative Medicine there is also a glaring drawback – natural muscle relaxers while far safer, as a group for many people tend to be much less effective and slow acting than their prescription drug counterpart. There are exceptions, but you must work at finding which natural muscle relaxants might work for you. As with many things in life, deciding to use a natural over the counter muscle relaxer or a prescription muscle relaxer becomes a matter of evaluating the trade-offs between the two options.
As a way to sidestep the use of any kind of muscle relaxant that is taken by mouth, various therapies can be used to directly treat muscle spasm, such as stretching, cold/heat packs, various types of massage, acupressure, acupuncture and other alternative medicine treatments. But this not the way that our drug-educated society has been educated; we tend to want to pop pills to feel better.
Are there risks to using muscle relaxers?
Prescription muscle relaxers are a general category of drugs medications, not a class of medication like cholesterol lowering or blood pressure lowering drugs. As a group muscle relaxants are simply a group of drugs that have a relaxing and sedative effect on the overall body and hence they relax muscles and reduce tension and spasm in abnormally contracted muscle tissue. They do not act directly on the tight and irritated muscles, but they act on the brain by interfering with communication between nerve messages that are sent between the body through the spinal cord and the brain. By blocking communication between the brain and the body they relax all parts of the body – the muscles included. It is this ability to influence the brain and affect all parts of the body that the danger and wide range of side effects that gives rise to the range of side effects that make it necessary to be very careful when using muscle relaxant drugs.
Ideally, muscle relaxants are only prescribed early during the course of treatment on a short-term and limited basis for neck and low back pain relief caused by muscle spasms. If no spasms are noted and good range of motion is found in the area of complaint then there is no reason to consider using a muscle relaxer prescription.
Because the function of the brain and related nervous system is modified and reduced by muscle relaxant drugs, all drugs that also work by modifying brain function should be limited (allergy medicines, alcohol, antihistamines, epilepsy medications, tranquilizers and sleeping pills and other medicinal products). Mixing alcohol and muscle relaxants has a disturbing effect; modification of both how the brain functions and this in turn affects different body systems that are under the control of the brain are altered greatly and often in ways that are not predictable.
Many average law-abiding citizens who innocently take a prescription muscle relaxant for back pain can become addicted to it. It does not take a weak mind or a bad intent for this to happen. The longer a muscle relaxer is used the greater the opportunity for dependence to develop by way of alerted brain function. This very common and real situation exists whenever chronic pain is being treated with its ongoing likelihood of pain and need for drug assistance. The individual is kept in a mental daze by the need for pain control and the effects of altered thinking and poor judgment caused by the pain medicine. In this way two forces – pain and addiction – pull the patient toward greater drug use, and so the downward spiral begins.
Dr. Lumbago takes the position that this is a dangerous situation that is best to not enter unless driven by absolute necessity since it can be so difficult to control once it has been entered. Considering that any benefit for pain control and relaxation of spastic muscles is only temporary anyway, it seems a small benefit to take such great risks.
What are the side effects of muscle relaxers?
No muscle relaxant drug can help the body directly heal or recover faster, but by depressing brain function they do provide temporary pain relief in some – not all – people.
Brain-related side effects (note the brain involvement in this list) may include nausea, dizziness, nervousness, irritability, indecision, personality deterioration, muddled thought process and decision making, drowsiness, tremors, lightheadedness, agitation, unsteadiness while standing, less mental alertness, impaired eyesight, and insomnia are common as well. It is no wonder that use of muscle relaxers is always accompanied with a warning to avoid driving or operating machinery while taking muscle relaxers.
Physical side effects include the strong physical reaction and pain on the body of drug addiction which not only affects the emotional and intellectual capacity of the person. The most common physical side reaction when taking muscle relaxers is intense fatigue and drowsiness. Drowsiness is such a common and strong component of muscle relaxer use because it is triggered not only from a mental standpoint by the drug effect on the brain, but from a physical standpoint by the drug effect on the body – fatigue and drowsiness come from multiple directions. Other reactions include upset stomach, urinary retention, nausea and vomiting, muscle wasting and liver damage. Some drugs create an unpleasant taste or dry mouth.
Because these side effects are so intense and common, in the U.S. muscle relaxers are a controlled substance that requires a prescription. Anyone with a personal or family history of drug or alcohol addiction should avoid use of muscle relaxers, and if used on a strictly limited basis they should never be mixed with alcohol.
As a result of the welcome pain relief muscle these drugs definitely do deliver they can become addictive. This is especially to anyone in chronic pain from physical problems that will never improve (degenerative arthritis, cancer, failed surgery). Once the body comes to anticipate pain relief from a daily intake of a muscle relaxer it can become dependent on it to function. Better to avoid this situation by exploring other options, even if they are less effective for immediate pain control, that do not pose this larger long term threat.
Further, muscle relaxants are not recommended for pregnant women, older adults, or those with a history of depression, drug or alcohol addiction.
To avoid unintended consequences of muscle relaxant use, they should ideally be taken at bedtime and never prior to driving any motorized vehicle or operating machinery of any type.
Natural or over the counter muscle relaxer
Natural muscle relaxers which are available over-the-counter are also called OTC muscle relaxants. By their occurrence in nature they tend to be non-addictive and milder in their effect on the body in general and on muscle that is in painful spasm and for this reason less effective as a group. They tend to be formulated with all natural herbal and mineral ingredients, often used for hundreds of years at a time and in a culture that did not have access to drugs.
Natural muscle relaxers
It is my opinion based on over 40 years of experience working with patients during some very difficult and trying bouts of severe spinal pain and muscle spasm, that seldom will a non-drug herbal or mineral remedy match the speed, reliability and degree of muscle spasm reduction as a prescription drug. Even so, I always suggest that it is worth the effort to experiment for a short while to learn how a person will respond to a few different muscle relaxer products before taking the step to use a prescription muscle relaxer, and take on all the associated risks that they present.
Some natural muscle relaxers include:
- Dong Quai
- Kava Root
- White Willow
- Green-lipped mussel oil
Acupuncture can also be used to reduce muscle spasm. Investigate treatment with acupuncture or acupressure as a way to not only reduce muscle tension and soreness related to arthritis and injury, but also reduce pain.
Research using Google to find information about different natural muscle relaxers. You could be pleasantly surprised because for some people these different products can be surprisingly effective; you will never know until you try. Just keep in mind that that prescription muscle relaxers are not your only option.