Have you ever taken a prescription muscle relaxer or thought about taking one? The name alone probably makes you think that muscle relaxers are helpful and harmless, but think twice — synthetic muscle relaxers (unlike a homemade muscle rub) are actually both highly addictive and dangerous when they’re not used as prescribed or intended.
The problem with typical prescription or over-the-counter muscle relaxers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, is that they do not heal the problem. They just shut off communication between your nervous system and brain so you don’t feel pain.
However, the shut-off isn’t localized just to the painful and spastic muscles. Rather, the entire body is affected in ways that are not intended or desirable. You might take a muscle relaxer for a pain in your back, but your arms, leg and neck will be affected just as much as your back.
You might fall asleep quickly and easily after taking a muscle relaxer, but how do you feel when you wake up? It’s not uncommon to physically feel like you got hit by a truck, and you’ll likely experience brain fog as well.
The pain is also back. Now you reach for the bottle of muscle-relaxing pills your doctor prescribed, and the cycle starts all over again.
Despite the name, muscle relaxers actually don’t act on the muscular system. Rather, they work on the nervous system.
Muscle relaxers are typically taken by people looking to treat muscle spasms, tightness and pain associated with backaches, headaches, or fibromyalgia symptoms, but why take a prescription drug to relax your muscles when there are so many natural ways to accomplish your goal?
What Are Muscle Relaxers?
A muscle spasm results from inflammation that occurs when a muscle is overstretched or torn. A muscle strain doesn’t sound like a serious injury, but it can actually cause severe pain for some people, even sending them to the emergency room. Muscle strains or pulled muscles often occur in the lower back.
Muscle relaxers are a group of drugs that reduce tension and spasm in muscles and have an overall sedative effect on the body. Muscle-relaxing drugs are designed to depress the central nervous system.
Lower-back problems are one of the most common reasons for the use of muscle relaxers. However, most of the time, acute low-back pain is the result of a simple strain and is a self-limiting condition that will resolve itself in four to six weeks, with or without treatment.
There are two main types of muscle relaxers: spasmolytics (or antispastics) and neuromuscular blockers. Spasmolytics are most commonly used to alleviate pain associated with muscle spasms and muscle spasticity.
Muscle spasticity is a neurological condition that causes muscles to be continuously contracted. Examples of these conditions include multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy and stroke. Doctors often prescribe muscle relaxers, including baclofen, dantrolene, chlorzoxazone, methocarbamol and tizanidine, to treat spasticity.
To treat muscle sprains, injuries or other acute conditions, your doctor might prescribe drugs such as metaxalone, carisoprodol or cyclobenzaprine.
Neuromuscular blockers are used in surgical procedures and often used in emergency situations to cause temporary paralysis. The term “muscle relaxer” or “muscle relaxant” is commonly used to refer to spasmolytics only.
Due to the side effects, an initial assessment is required to evaluate the need for the drug and the length of time for which it is required. Muscle relaxers are typically used to treat acute muscle problems and are generally not prescribed for long-term use. Individuals taking muscle-relaxing drugs should be under the care of a physician.
The earliest known use of muscle-relaxant drugs dates back to the 16th century, when European explorers encountered natives of the Amazon Basin in South America using poison-tipped arrows that produced death by skeletal muscle paralysis. This poison (known today as curare) led to some of the earliest scientific studies in pharmacology. Its active ingredient, tubocurarine, as well as many synthetic derivatives, played a significant role in scientific experiments to determine the function of acetylcholine in neuromuscular transmission.
By 1943, neuromuscular-blocking drugs became established as muscle relaxants in the practice of anesthesia and surgery.
Best Natural Muscle Relaxers
1. Arnica Oil
Applied to the skin in the form of an oil, cream, ointment, liniment or salve, arnica oil is a potent remedy for various inflammatory and exercise-related injuries. The positive effects of topically applying arnica have proved to be effective in reducing pain, indicators of inflammation and muscle damage when used during progressive muscle relaxation.
The thymol found in arnica has been found to be an effective vasodilator of subcutaneous blood capillaries, which helps facilitate the transport of blood and other fluid accumulations and acts as an anti-inflammatory to aid the normal healing processes. Arnica oil also stimulates the flow of white blood cells, which process congested blood to help disperse trapped fluid from the muscles, joints and bruised tissue.
2. Chiropractic Adjustments
Chiropractic adjustments are a drug-free and surgery-free path to treat pain naturally. In fact, chiropractic techniques can be even more effective at reducing pain than muscle relaxers, according to research from the College of Chiropractic at Life University in Georgia.
Chiropractors focus their attention on the health of your spine being properly aligned and, if there are shifts, helping the spine come back into alignment. When it comes to back and neck pain (including a stiff neck), chiropractors can alleviate the pain you’ve been experiencing by helping you get back to a proper, pain-free alignment.
3. Cannabis Oil
Evidence suggests that cannabinoids may prove useful in pain modulation by inhibiting neuronal transmission in pain pathways, making cannabis oil a smart choice for a natural muscle relaxer. The oil has the ability to relieve chronic pain and inflammation, which is why it’s sometimes used as a natural fibromyalgia treatment.
If you use cannabis oil, make sure it’s purchased through a reputable company that sells pure and lab-tested oils.
4. Essential Oils
A great essential oil to have on hand for a wide range of health needs is peppermint oil. Peppermint essential oil is an excellent natural painkiller and muscle relaxant. It’s especially helpful in soothing sore muscles, an aching back and melting away a tension headache.
Studies show that peppermint oil applied topically has pain-relief benefits associated with fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome. Simply dilute peppermint essential oil in a carrier oil (like jojoba or coconut) or an unscented lotion, and apply to the area of concern.
Lemongrass essential oil helps improve blood circulation and can therefore help relieve muscle spasms and backaches. Frankincense and cypress essential oils are also awesome at reducing inflammation and improving circulation, which helps reduce pain and spasms.
When your body sends a signal to your brain that something hurts, the pain is the body’s way of telling you to stop using that area of the body so it can begin the healing process. A prescription muscle relaxer disguises the pain and lets you move past the point of the body’s comfort, which can prolong the pain and even cause the pain to spread in the body.
When you get a good massage from a licensed therapist, he or she can work on the area of concern as well as your whole body, loosening tension and relieving pain. If you have chronic muscle spasms or pain, it’s ideal to get a massage at least once a month or more. The higher your stress levels, the more likely you are to have muscle tension and pain that requires regular massage.
A 2011 clinical, randomized study involving cancer patients out of Taiwan researched the effects of massage therapy on muscle pain and relaxation. Researchers found that massage therapy definitively improved bone and muscle pain management in these patients, showcasing the muscle-relaxing effects of massage.
6. Avoid “Pain Foods”
The following are pain-triggering foods that should be avoided to help relax muscles:
- Sugar: Sugar is pro-inflammatory and increases pain.
- Alcohol: This also worsens inflammation.
- Caffeine: Caffeine can be dehydrating and may increase inflammation. Limit yourself to no more than one cup of coffee daily, or cut back completely if you can.
- Trans fats: These fats increase inflammation and pain.
- Excess calories: Being overweight exacerbates back pain.
7. Epsom Salt and Magnesium
Signs of magnesium deficiency include muscle pain, fibromyalgia and leg cramps. By soaking your whole body or even just your feet in Epsom salt, you can increase your internal magnesium levels, which are essential to your muscles working properly and avoiding the need for muscle relaxers.
In general, healthy magnesium levels from Epsom salt use can help overall bodily inflammation since low magnesium has been linked with higher C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the body. (6)
8. Don’t Rest Too Much
When it comes to muscle spasms, as long as the pain isn’t severe, it’s a good idea to keep moving to keep muscles loose and reduce disease-causing inflammation. Go about your normal daily activities at a slower pace if needed.
Definitely avoid any movements that might have started your pain or seem to aggravate it. Taking a little more time to rest and relax isn’t a bad idea, but light activity will actually speed up your recovery time — so resist taking long television breaks on the couch, and keep your blood flowing.
Of course, disregard this recommendation if your pain is really unbearable or accompanied by other symptoms. In that case, visit your doctor right away.
Are Muscle Relaxers Addictive?
In the U.S. as well as other countries, muscle relaxers are commonly abused. The problem is that these muscle relaxers can be so fast-acting and effective at pain relief that people with chronic pain easily become addicted to them. Addiction often develops when muscle relaxers are used habitually as the main or only method of pain relief.
The number of people winding up in the emergency room because of the misuse or abuse of the prescription muscle relaxant carisoprodol has more than doubled in recent years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that patients take muscle relaxers only for limited periods of time (two to three weeks).
When some muscle relaxers, like carisoprodol, are ingested, they’re converted by the liver into a chemical with anti-anxiety properties. This means that, even when taking it on its own, patients run the risk of developing a physical and/or psychological dependence on this muscle relaxer.
Similarly to the use of other pharmaceutical drugs, the body becomes used to a daily intake of a muscle relaxer and is then dependent on the drug in order to function normally. If a typical dose is skipped or intake is stopped altogether, the person is likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. Muscle relaxers can also cause acute liver toxicity.
Muscle relaxers become even more problematic and risky when they’re used in combination with alcohol or other drugs. When this occurs, the side effects associated with abuse are even worse.
Risks and Side Effects
Muscle relaxers should not be taken for longer than three weeks. Side effects of muscle-relaxing drugs are common and include drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, urinary retention (an inability to completely empty the bladder), fatigue, weakness and addiction. Some muscle relaxers can also cause acid reflux.
In more extreme cases and when muscle relaxers are abused, they can cause heart failure and paralysis. Due to the side effects associated with muscle relaxers, individuals are advised to not drive or operate machinery after use, and it’s typically advised to take them before bed.
Those with a history of drug or alcohol addiction should not use muscle relaxers, and muscle relaxers should also never be mixed with alcohol. Carisoprodol (Soma) should especially be avoided because it’s associated with a high risk of abuse and addiction potential not seen with other muscle relaxants.
Conventional muscle relaxers should not be taken by older adults, pregnant women, or anyone who suffers from depression or who has a history of drug/alcohol addiction.
These possible side effects and potential for abuse are why it’s so much better to take the eight natural muscle relaxers above. Prescription or over-the-counter muscle relaxers have many more harmful side effects, in addition to being highly addictive. Instead, heal your muscles and relieve pain with natural, healthy substances to avoid these pitfalls — and relax those muscles!