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Muscle relaxants are drugs or other substances used to reduce muscle tone, also called tonus or residual muscle tension, or to induce temporary immobility. Muscle tone is a continuous partial contraction of the muscles that keeps the muscles in a constant state of readiness for action. Muscle relaxants are used to treat muscle spasms and the symptoms of disorders affecting muscle tone and to induce paralysis in a patient during medical procedures. A muscle relaxant can be placed in one of two broad categories, spasmolytics and neuromuscular blocking drugs, though the term is often used to refer specifically to the former.

A spasmolytic, also sometimes called an antispasmodic, is a muscle relaxant used to control muscle spasms and spasticity. These drugs are often referred to as centrally acting muscle relaxants, meaning that they work by affecting cells in the central nervous system. This is not entirely accurate, as it has been discovered that some muscle relaxants actually do not produce their effects in the central nervous system, but the term centrally acting muscle relaxant is still often used as a blanket term for all spasmolytic drugs.

Spasms are abrupt, involuntary contractions in the skeletal muscles. Many spasms are commonplace and minor, such as cramps from intense exercise, but in more serious cases spasms can cause severe pain and significantly impaired mobility. Spasticity is a condition in which a person's skeletal muscles are in a constant state of increased tension, or hypertonia. This impairs flexibility and movement by making it harder for the muscles to relax and stretch, and over time this constant tension can affect the alignment of bones near the affected muscles. This can cause problems such as impaired mobility, reduced dexterity, or abnormal gait, and in some severe cases can result in total paralysis.

Spasmolytics work by either increasing inhibition or decreasing excitation in motor neurons, which inhibits generation of the electrical discharges that send signals from cell to cell. This reduces spasticity and spasms by causing the muscles to receive fewer signals telling them to contract. Commonly used spasmolytic drugs include diapezam , dantrolene , and clonazepam.

Spasmolytic drugs are often used to treat the symptoms of neurological disorders, such as the spasticity caused by conditions such as spastic diplegia, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis or the severe muscle spasms caused by dystonia and fibromyalgia. Spasmolytics can also be used to treat other problems, such as severe lower back pain, which is usually caused by muscle injuries, and tension headaches. Spasmolytics affecting smooth muscle can be used for problems in the digestive system such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Muscle relaxants can have significant side effects. They frequently cause sedation and fatigue, and some have additional side effects that can include blurred vision, loss of coordination, and stomach problems such as stomachache and nausea. In rare cases, some muscle relaxants can cause heart or respiratory failure. Some are also potentially habit-forming after extended use.

The term muscle relaxant is also sometimes used to refer to a separate group of drugs called neuromuscular blocking drugs. These cause temporary paralysis in skeletal muscles by inhibiting the production, release, or reception of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. They are given in combination with anesthetics during surgery to prevent spontaneous movement.


Where available, spasmolytics tend to be the most powerful and effective over-the-counter muscle relaxant. Drugs in this category target the central nervous system and seek to block or change the nerve signals heading to tense or injured muscles. In effect, they cause all nerve signals to slow down. It is for this reason that these sorts of drugs are often referred to as “centrally acting” — they impact all muscles at once, and can’t usually be targeted to any specific area. These are often the best choice for people who are experiencing pain or tension all over their bodies.

Neuromuscular Blockers

Neuromuscular blockers work a little bit differently. Rather than impacting the nerves as a whole, they target muscular tissues that are damaged or “distressed,” which can often be detected by the chemicals and ions on their surface. Blockers work on the muscular level to block or redirect nerve signals that are arriving. The result is similar, but is usually a lot more focused, and can take longer to start working.

Homeopathic and Herbal Preparations

Homeopathic medications generally are based on the idea that you treat a disorder with the same ingredients that cause it, and this holds true for muscle relaxants. Rather than trying to block nerve signals or change the surface chemistry of damaged tissues, these medications typically look to “treat like with like,” intending to stop tension and pain with diluted forms of the very supplements that can cause these problems. Examples include calcarea phosphorica, which may be helpful for neck and upper back pain and tension; kali carb, which is used to treat lower back pain; and arnica, which may help relax overworked muscles.

A number of herbs and plant materials can also be used to form what is basically an all-natural over-the-counter muscle relaxant. Herbs like catnip, valerian, bergamot, licorice, basil and caraway are typically believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce joint swelling. Valerian, a flowering perennial plant, has been used since medieval times to treat neck tension. Other herbs, such as kava root, white willow, horsetail and devil's claw, do better at combating pain. Many of these natural alternatives can be found either combined or in isolation in health or wellness stores, and are commonly sold as teas, capsules, or powders.

At-Home Remedies

People who are not able to purchase prepared herbs or drugs or who simply wish to avoid medicating their pain might also be interested in a number of at-home remedies for muscle soreness and tension. Getting a massage, taking a hot bath, or placing heating pads or hot towels on the impacted areas is often effective, at least in the short term. Adequate rest is also very important.

Some people also find relief by increasing the vitamin and mineral content of their meals. Proper amounts of calcium and magnesium can often help relieve muscle pain, and magnesium can help repair damaged nerve endings, too. Other important vitamins and minerals that help act as muscle relaxants include silica, potassium, vitamin C and alpha lipoic acid. Drinking adequate amounts of water might also help remove toxins from the body that can be causing muscle pain. People who have balanced diets and are adequately hydrated often find that they are less susceptible to muscular tension in the first place, which suggests that these sorts of treatments can be preventative, too.

Side Effects and Safety Precautions

There are a number of side effects associated with muscle relaxing drugs and herbs, though the intensity and duration of the symptoms can vary a lot from person to person, and depends at least in part on how much was ingested. Nausea, blurred vision, and headaches are some of the most common, particularly where spasmolytics and neuromuscular blockers are concerned. Extreme drowsiness is also very common. The same reactions that force the muscles to relax commonly also trigger deep relaxation in the sleep center of the brain, which can make it dangerous for people to drive or operate machinery while taking these sorts of drugs.

One of the biggest risks with over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements generally is the possibility of drug interaction, and this is certainly a valid concern where muscle relaxants are concerned. Most preparations are generally safe to take in isolation, but blood chemistry is a complicated thing; the presence of other drugs or medications can lead to a variety of problems. Sometimes muscle relaxants will simply not be effective, but more serious consequences like increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, or even death can also result. For this reason it’s usually a good idea for people to get the opinion of a healthcare provider before taking any drugs, even if they are available over the counter or in “natural” food stores.