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Muscle relaxants are medications that help in improving symptoms such as muscle contraction, musculoskeletal pain, or spasms. These relaxants are used to treat both Spasticity & Spasm. Spasticity is a long-term muscle pain caused by the spinal cord or brain injury whereas Spasm is caused by a Musculoskeletal condition. These medications are also often prescribed for a variety of neurological conditions as well as surgical procedures to cause temporary paralysis to elevate the pain. Once the muscle spasm and pain are elevated, other treatments for spinal injuries such as physical therapy and exercise become more effective.

Muscle relaxants are very common over-the-counter medications and are readily available in pharmacies. Like any other medication, muscle relaxants can also cause side effects, and prolonged use can have potentially serious effects, causing harm to your body in the long run.

1. Muscle Relaxants are the Second Line of Treatment

Muscle relaxants are ideally prescribed for acute, rather than chronic conditions. Doctors usually advise over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain management however, they may suggest muscle relaxants if a patient is unable to take the painkillers due to other conditions such as ulcers or liver problems.

One of the most common reasons for prescribing muscle relaxants is back pain. Research shows that problems like back pain should be treated with painkillers or NSAID- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before suggesting muscle relaxants, however, if different treatments such as pain killers, physical therapy, and other lines of treatment fail only then doctors are suggested to prescribe muscle relaxants. The reason being that not only do these affect other bodily organs but also make a patient dependent and immune to regular dosage. So much so that every time the pain comes back the patient must take an even higher dose to keep the pain down.

More and more doctors are moving away from prescribing muscle relaxants to save their patients from long-term problems of addiction. However, medication abuse among physicians is a persistent problem. Although there may be many underlying factors, the long-term use of these relaxants can have a serious impact on health. Most of the side effects develop over time and cannot be seen immediately. Despite the severity of these side effects, it is still a common practice to prescribe or get OTC to ease the pain. 

2. Abuse & Side-effects of Muscle Relaxants

Muscle relaxants can be very addictive, thus leading to a high tendency of medication misuse. Since muscle relaxants are usually administered for short-term treatment, any misuse or long-term use of these can lead to dependence on medication and addiction.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, muscle relaxants are generally considered non-addictive however there is plenty of evidence that prolonged use of the medication can lead to physical dependence. In general, when muscle relaxants are taken over an extended period, it can lead to a wide range of side effects some of which can be very critical for health. These reactions to medication depending on the dosage and may vary in severity.  

Below are some of the side effects of abusing muscle relaxants:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Disorientation
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Heart failure
  • Inflammation and swelling of the liver
  • Low white blood cell count (lowered immunity)
  • Coma
  • Light-headedness
  • Blurred vision
  • Urinary retention

The chemicals used in muscle relaxants not only depress the nervous system but can also be fatal if taken in more than the required dosage. Moreover, some of these muscle relaxers cause the blood to thin out and can prove to be fatal in case of an accident. There have been many reports of muscle relaxant abuse by patients due to addiction over time or continued usage even after the pain subsided or the doctors discontinued the medication. 

3. Muscle relaxant addiction and withdrawal

Muscle relaxants can be addictive and abrupt discontinuation after taking them for an extensive period, can cause devastating effects. Some of the withdrawal symptoms are nausea, vomiting, body aches, and sleep disturbance. Generally, muscle relaxers are not prescribed for long-term use and patients using these medications should be under the care of a physician. When taken as prescribed by the treating physician, the medication may have regular side effects, if any, however unsupervised prolonged use can lead to dependency on the relaxant.

Below are some of the muscle relaxant addiction and abuse:

  • Continuing to take the medication even after it's not required
  • Taking more than the required dose to feel the same effect
  • Feeling sick, exhausted and tired (unexplained body aches) after the effect of the medication wears off
  • Unable to discontinue the medication
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities
  • Drastic changes in appetite and sleeping

Although limiting the use of muscle relaxants is beneficial, going cold turkey after taking them for an extensive period of time is not recommended as it may cause some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms start to show a few days after discontinuing the use and stay for a few days or weeks. It is recommended to consult your primary healthcare physician before discontinuing the usage.

Some of the common withdrawal symptoms can include the following:

  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Headache
  • Muscle twitching
  • Tremors
  • Impaired balance or coordination
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis
  • Anxiety

It is important to keep in mind that muscle relaxants should be considered as the last resort, and patients should be encouraged for other treatments such as pain killers and physical therapy to cope with the pain. Alternatively, people who prefer natural over synthetic find natural food supplements and techniques beneficial to them. It is advised to speak to your primary healthcare physician regarding all probable options for pain management, the possible short-term and long-term effects and how to adjust accordingly.

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