Updated on September 26, 2022
6 min read

What Are Muscle Relaxers?

A muscle relaxer (muscle relaxant) treats muscle spasms or spasticity. There are two types of muscle relaxers. 

Antispasmodic drugs (spasmolytics) are used to relieve, prevent, and decrease muscle spasms. They stop nerve impulses in the central nervous system (CNS) or act directly on smooth muscles.

Some examples are cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and tizanidine (Zanaflex).

Antispastic drugs are used in the treatment of muscle spasticity. They relieve muscle stiffness in skeletal muscles or change nerve transmission on the spinal cord.

Examples include baclofen (Lioresal) and clonidine (Catapres).

Some muscle relaxers have both antispasmodic and antispastic effects.

Are Muscle Relaxers Addictive?

It is possible to get addicted to muscle relaxers. Not all muscle relaxers have a high potential for addiction.

The most common muscle relaxers that cause addiction are:

  • Soma (carisoprodol)
  • Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine)
  • Valium (diazepam)

If you use these, or other muscle relaxers for a long time, you may become physically dependent on them. This means you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug.

It is best to get medical advice before taking any muscle relaxer. Healthcare professionals can help you understand the possible side effects and health risks associated with these drugs. 

3.69 million people (12 years old and up) took Soma (carisoprodol) for non-medical reasons in their lifetime.

2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

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Muscle Relaxer Withdrawal Symptoms

Many muscle relaxers can cause withdrawal symptoms. Doctors may slowly taper your dose over time to reduce the risk of withdrawal. 

Symptoms of muscle relaxer withdrawal include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Malaise
  • Discomfort
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations

These symptoms usually peak two to four days after the last dose. However, they can last up to two weeks.

Muscle Relaxer Uses

Muscle relaxers are prescribed if you have spasms or spastic episodes. Doctors also provide them as alternative treatment options for muscle pain.

Muscle Spasms

Muscle spasms are the sudden and involuntary contraction of muscles. These spasms or “muscle cramps” occur when:

  • Muscles are overstretched or held in the same position for too long
  • Muscle cells run out of energy and/or fluid, or they become excitable

They can affect a part of the muscle, the entire muscle, or a group of muscles. Muscle spasms are painful and short.

They produce pain that ranges from mild to severe. They last anywhere between a few seconds and several minutes.

Muscle spasms are often caused by spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other conditions.

Muscle Spasticity

Muscle spasticity is a long-term disorder that causes persistent stiffness or tightness of the muscles. People with this condition have recurring muscle spasms,

which limit their ability to function.

They can also develop permanent contractions as a result of severe muscle spasms and stiffness. 

Signs of muscle spasticity include:

  • Hyperactive reflexes
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Delayed motor development in infants and young children
  • Impaired function (e.g., reduced ability to care for oneself)
  • Abnormal posture
  • Contractures
  • Bone and joint deformities

Muscle relaxers with antispastic properties are prescribed for spasticity.

Muscle Pain and Other Uses

Muscle relaxers are no more effective than painkillers in treating pain.

However, doctors may prescribe these drugs in the following situations:  

  1. If you have acute muscular pain, but are allergic to or can't tolerate painkillers.
  2. If you experience muscle spasms that interfere with sleep (e.g., nocturnal leg cramps and restless legs syndrome).
  3. If you have spasms that impair your ability to perform basic daily functions, like eating and bathing.
  4. If you are not responsive to over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers    

Before you consider muscle relaxants, it is best to talk with a doctor for medical advice. They can help you determine whether prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications are more suitable. 

Using a muscle relaxer for chronic pain has not been proven to be effective. It also poses long-term health risks, namely drug addiction and abuse. 

Is it Bad to Take Muscle Relaxers Every Day?

Your doctor’s prescription will determine how long you can take a muscle relaxer. In general, it should be for no more than 2 to 3 weeks. 

Evidence suggests that muscle relaxers aren’t safe for long-term use. 

It also suggests that muscle relaxers aren’t as effective in long-term pain management. A very large study concluded that they helped with acute but not chronic lower back pain. 

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Signs You are Addicted to Muscle Relaxers

Addiction comes in many forms. However, some signs can indicate if someone has an addiction to muscle relaxers. 

Someone may be addicted to muscle relaxers if they:

  • Take a muscle relaxer when a prescription no longer indicates it 
  • Require more of the drug to feel the same effects 
  • Constantly think about a muscle relaxer
  • Fake symptoms for more prescription refills 
  • Change physical appearance, hygiene, and behavior suddenly 
  • Combine a muscle relaxer with other substances to experience a more intense high
  • Overdose 

Long-Term Side Effects of Muscle Relaxers

Doctors should only prescribe muscle relaxers for no more than 2 to 3 weeks.

Long-term use could have serious side effects, including:

  • Falls
  • Fractures or sprains
  • Vehicle crashes
  • Misuse and dependence
  • Abuse and addiction
  • Overdose

Because of these risks, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) does not recommend muscle relaxers in older individuals. 

Muscle relaxer use doubled from 2005 to 2016 in the general population. There was a disproportionately high use of muscle relaxers in older adults. 

JAMA Medical Journal Study

Muscle Relaxer Overdose Symptoms

Taking more muscle relaxants than what was prescribed can lead to a drug overdose. The signs of muscle relaxer overdose include:

  • Drowsiness 
  • Cardiovascular problems (e.g., fast or irregular heartbeats) 
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking or moving 
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Tremors or seizures 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Stupor
  • Shock
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing a muscle relaxant overdose, you must call 911 immediately.

Treatment for Muscle Relaxer Abuse & Addiction

The most important step of recovery is getting help. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for substance abuse and addiction, including:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment plans are an effective and all-inclusive option for those struggling with addiction. You'll live in secure housing and have access to medical care 24/7.

Depending on your needs, you can choose a 30-, 60-, or 90-day program with daily therapies. They will also help you set up your aftercare once you complete the program.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

A partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also known as an intensive outpatient program (IOP). PHPs provide a similar level of care to an inpatient program, but with more freedom and independence for the patient.

Medical care, behavioral therapy, and support groups are included onsite. The main difference is in a PHP, patients go home to sleep. Services may include food and transportation for some patients.

These programs can be suitable for new patients as well as those who complete an inpatient program.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is a good option for those who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities. They include therapy, education, and support in an environment that's flexible around your schedule.

Outpatient programs are a great place for new patients to start, or for people who have completed an inpatient or partial hospitalization program.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

There are some medicines that can help reduce the negative side effects of detox and withdrawal. Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions.

Disulfiram, acamprosate, morphine, and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat substance use disorders.

When combined with other evidence-based therapies, MAT can help you overcome your addiction, prevent relapse, and increase your chance of a full recovery.

Support Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Al-Anon, along with other groups, are peer-led organizations that are dedicated to helping people with substance use disorders remain sober.

These groups can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

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Updated on September 26, 2022

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