Muscle relaxers, or muscle relaxants, are prescription drugs generally used to treat acute pain caused by excessively tense muscles. Neck and lower back pain are common examples of this, as are tension headaches.
Many types of muscle pain are also caused by muscle spasms, which is when muscles involuntarily contract repetitively, with the pain resulting from unnatural tension, and often muscle cramps too. Injuries, particularly spinal cord injuries, can also lead to involuntary contractions because they interfere with messages between the brain and the musculoskeletal system, and a muscle relaxant can help ease the pain.
There are two types of muscle relaxers, neuromuscular blockers and spasmolytics. Neuromuscular blockers are not prescription muscle relaxers - they are used for surgery or medical emergencies - to induce temporary paralysis in a person. Spasmolytics are the type of muscle relaxers used to treat muscle pain and affect the central nervous system.
The most common prescription muscle relaxers are carisoprodol - marketed under the brand name Soma and cyclobenzaprine, more commonly known as Flexeril. These and other muscle relaxers are generally used to treat acute pain, not as a medical treatment for chronic, long-term discomfort. Their prescription is only approved for up to three weeks.
Muscle relaxers used to treat musculoskeletal pain, as in the conditions described above, are known as skeletal muscle relaxants - SMR.
Soma, considered the most powerful among prescription muscle relaxers, is classed by the DEA as a schedule IV controlled drug. This indicates that while the risk is considered low, the medication still has the potential for substance abuse and dependence.
The way muscle relaxers alleviate pain is by acting as central nervous system depressants. This means they moderately slow down the central nervous system activity related to certain functions. In this way, they prevent pain signals from being sent to the brain. Also, because muscle relaxers affect muscle tone throughout the entire body, some of them are very efficient in treating certain chronic or long-term conditions. These include multiple sclerosis, which causes generalized loss of muscle tone, or cerebral palsy, which causes pronounced muscle spasms.
The effects of muscle relaxants are felt rapidly - in less than an hour - and can last for four to six hours. However, because muscle relaxers have an overall sedative effect on the user, they have side effects that can interfere with a person's normal functioning. This is why it is advised to take them in the evening.
The side effects of muscle relaxers include:
In some cases, muscle relaxer use can lead to their abuse, for example, if a person makes recreational use of them to achieve a pleasant feeling or if they continue using for longer than the prescribed period. In turn, this can make people addicted to muscle relaxers. The Mental Health Services Administration estimated that in 2018, 1.7 million Americans aged between 12 and 25 had misused muscle relaxers that year.
When metabolized by the body, medications like Soma break down into a substance called meprobamate, an effective tranquilizer. This can enhance the feeling of deep relaxation muscle relaxers cause. Muscle relaxer abuse happens when people try to replicate this feeling regularly and use muscle relaxants in combination with other drugs or alcohol.
One effect of muscle relaxant abuse is increased tolerance and dependence. Since these medications are only designed to be used for short-term treatment, using muscle relaxers for even a few weeks can be enough for their effects to diminish. People find that because of this rapidly acquired tolerance, they abuse muscle relaxers by taking more of them to achieve the feeling of euphoria they seek.
A further complication is that a person starts to rely on them to feel more or less normal and even starts to feel unwell without them and experience withdrawal symptoms developing a clear physical dependence on the drug.
Muscle relaxer abuse can cause unpleasant side effects. Some of these are similar to their normal side effects, though many are more severe. They include:
As a type of prescription drug, muscle relaxers are designed to treat pain and prescribed at a doctor's discretion for specific conditions. Muscle relaxers are powerful medications, and any non-medical use of them entails the risk of developing dependence and, ultimately, addiction.
Drug abuse of any kind can potentially lead to addiction, but muscle relaxer addiction seems to develop more frequently when people misuse them together with other substances. Muscle relaxers are commonly abused with other drugs, such as opioids, benzodiazepines, or anti-depressants.
According to the National Library of Medicine, although skeletal muscle relaxants can be the primary drug a person abuses, "they are often used along with other central nervous system depressants, such as narcotics or alcohol". This is because these substances mutually enhance each other, producing a far more powerful effect on the user.
The risk of developing an addiction to muscle relaxers increases if a person has a history of certain forms of mental illness or behavioral conditions such as substance use disorder.
Muscle relaxant use and concomitant alcohol consumption can be extremely dangerous. Since both kinds of substances slow down the central nervous system and brain activity, they can cause slurred speech, confusion, nausea, and memory lapses. They can also lead to slowed breathing or, in severe cases, respiratory depression, as well as slowed heart rate. Alcohol and muscle relaxers together have powerful sedative effects and can cause extreme drowsiness, making driving particularly dangerous.
Abusing muscle relaxers may lead to a range of withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking them. Muscle relaxer addiction means the body is used to far larger amounts of them than is safe, and stopping abruptly, or even cutting down on their use, leads to withdrawal symptoms - common symptoms include:
It is clear withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe, so quitting 'cold turkey' is not recommended - this is particularly the case if a person is detoxing from other substances used alongside muscle relaxers. In this case, a person may be at risk of further symptoms, such as seizures, which could be dangerous, and a supervised medical detox is recommended.
By definition, addiction is not a condition that is easy to overcome, but taking that first step and deciding you want to be free of substance use is positive. With the right help and support, you can beat your addiction and achieve long-term recovery.
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If you or someone you know needs professional help, reach out to us today to find out more about our treatment options.