3 Reasons NOT to Take Muscle Relaxers for Back Pain

And Some Excellent Alternatives

By Coach E

3 Key Reasons to Avoid Muscle Relaxers for Back Pain

It may seem like a no-brainer: You throw your back out, you’re going to need some serious medication, right? But research is suggesting that this old guard method might be a dead end when it comes to actually healing back pain and preventing it from returning.

Read on to learn why muscle relaxers may not be your best choice, and for some simple steps (including my Low Back Pain “Damage Control” Routine) you can take instead.

We’ve all felt it – that all too familiar “tweak” or spasm in the back, usually resulting from a seemingly benign movement like stooping to tie your shoe or twisting a little as you reached behind you.

You bend and suddenly – OUCH. You are hit with a flash of pain that can really knock you out.

This is what I like to call a “WTF” Injury. There’s no planning for it, and it’s often hard to even understand what exactly went wrong.

This familiar, flexion-related back pain is so common that an estimated 8 out of 10 people experience it at some point [1]. Eighty percent of us have felt that sudden and disconcerting jerk or pulling along the back of body.

The back can be an area of weakness for many of us – something I address in my Bulletproof Back program. And by improperly engaging key stabilizer muscles throughout our daily lives and daily workouts, we can contribute to making this his key and sensitive area more prone to injury and pain.

muscle relaxers for back pain

But, while the pain is oh so real, it is usually not helpful to run to prescription medication like muscle relaxers.

Despite the seeming “quick fix” of popping a pill, these drugs could actually prolong back pain and extend recovery time.

Let’s take a look at what these medications are, what they do in the body and the natural alternatives that can help you heal and address the root of the problem – and in doing so, ease pain long term and make it less likely to return.

Muscle Relaxer 101

There are a range of relaxers available to treat back pain and other issues, and they have been found in some studies to provide patients with relief. However, this relief can come at the cost of side effects and an inability to correct the issue at hand.

The drugs function by causing sedation throughout the central nervous system, or in other words, making the whole body relaxed and making the user feel sleepy.

While this might provide some temporary pain relief, it also amounts to a general numbness throughout the whole body – more on this later – and side effects like drowsiness, dizziness, general weakness, and fatigue.

Certain forms, including Cyclobenzaprine (sold under the brand name Flexeril), Metaxalone (brand name Skelaxin) and Orphenadrine, have been shown to be dangerous for patients with conditions like liver disease and heart disease [2].

And one muscle relaxer, in particular, Carisoprodol (brand name Soma) has been associated with a high risk of abuse and addiction.

Based on these side effects and addiction risks, even professionals who report that they might provide patients with some relief note that these issues are significant enough to warrant caution when it comes to taking these drugs [3].

And other experts are even more cautious. Consumer Reports advises, “there is limited evidence they [muscle relaxers] actually help relieve symptoms [4].”

The consumer advocacy group stresses the pathway the medications take to reduce pain – it might actually be a side effect itself, sedation, that provides relief any relief.

This brings us to the crux of this article: The three key reasons to avoid muscle relaxers for back pain.

Reason 1: Muscle Relaxers Mask Symptoms

This means that under the influence of these medications, you might be moving in such a way that is causing further damage, but without the sensation to alert you to take care.

And these masked movements might not be just a one-off reach or twist that felt “wrong.” Muscle relaxers could very well be masking important feedback from your body about habitual, recurring movements that are contributing to pain and weakness.

Sometimes, pain is a good thing. No, it is not fun, but it does alert us to the fact that there is an issue, and for that reason, it is important.

If we are blinded to important signals from our body, we could be inadvertently making the problem worse and cause more damage in the process.

Reason 2: The Side Effects Can Be Serious

As we learned earlier, these medications can present serious threats to health. This means potential liver damage for people with hepatic problems, increased risks for those with heart issues, and serious concerns for the general population – concerns like risk of addiction and issues like dizziness, drowsiness, and weakness.

These more “everyday” symptoms, while not as scary-sounding as liver damage, still translate to difficulties and real concerns.

Symptoms like drowsiness and dizziness mean it can be dangerous to go about your daily life while under the influence of muscle relaxers i.e. driving a car is out. And, these symptoms can lead to an increased risk of falls and other injuries.

Not a sustainable solution if you ask me.

Reason 3: Muscle Relaxers Work Globally and Affect the Entire Body

Like most pain medications, muscle relaxers aren’t able to pinpoint their approach to the single muscle group affected.

In fact, these medications are only effective at all thanks to their ability to sedate the body globally and numb you to pain. But this means that all muscles will become relaxed – including the ones that didn’t fire properly and caused the initial injury in the first place.

As these improperly firing muscles become more and more relaxed, the root cause of the issue will only be aggravated and you won’t be able to consciously move in a way that would promote healing and strengthening of weak areas.

Taking muscle relaxers for a flexion-related back pain is kind of like shuttering the windows and turning off all the lights in your garage before trying to work on the car. You are majorly limiting your ability to get information about what the problem is, and you won’t be able to fix it. Don’t fumble around in the dark when it comes to healing your body.

So, if prescription muscle relaxers are a bad choice, what do you do instead?

Let’s consider some different options.

The Alternatives

Now, if muscle relaxers are absolutely required, natural alternatives exist such as white willow bark. This herbal supplement has been shown to help ease back pain [5].

Researchers have also found evidence that Capsicum frutescens – more commonly known as cayenne pepper – was effective in reducing low back pain [6]. You can find capsicum in topical form, and the ointment can be applied to the painful area.

alternative to muscle relaxers for back pain

While studies into these remedies and others are ongoing, there is one natural treatment method for back pain that almost every single expert and seems to agree upon – movement and exercise.

The Best Alternative to Muscle Relaxers: Exercise

While it may be tempting to just lie down and call it a day when back pain strikes, kicking your feet up for too long can actually make back pain much worse.

Studies have found that people who stay active when back pain strikes have better flexibility than those who took a week to rest [7], meaning that their muscles are less spastic and more relaxed.

Movement is key to both reducing pain and speeding up the healing process.

When back pain strikes, I suggest that you find some way to incorporate pain-free movement (I’ll help you out with a great routine below).

Movement encourages circulation (of blood, nutrition, oxygen) which in turn promotes healing.

This doesn’t mean you need to go for the gold with crazy intense workouts while you are in pain – dial the intensity down a notch and instead keep your focus on healing.

But it does mean that you should find a way to stay gently active so that blood can keep flowing to the affected area.

Your aching back will become less stiff and you’ll feel better faster – so then you can return to those butt-kicking sessions.

And, while any movement is great, it is best to move in a way that gets to the real root of the problem.

A Damage Control Routine for Back Pain

This is a routine that you can do right away when you experience that common, flexion related back pain. (Note that if your back pain is from an extension-related injury like spondylolisthesis or other issues, this program is not for you!)

It is a myth that you need to stretch when you experience back pain. You may feel tight when you have low back pain because often, the lumbar extensors will be tight, tense and painful. But chronic tightness is not the cause of the pain.

The pain is actually related to flexion – when you made that seemingly harmless movement that sparked your pain, a muscle, ligament or the disc was stretched or ”tweaked” somehow. Now your neuromuscular system is overcompensating – tightening up unnecessarily and stopping all muscle movement in an effort to prevent that tweak from happening again.

Stretching won’t stop your neuromuscular system from continuing this pattern. To do that, you need to dig deeper and engage some key muscles.

This routine will help you realign, neutralize the lumbar discs, and most importantly, activate the stabilizer muscles around the spine.

These deep core stabilizer muscles, your glutes, and your obliques, all need to be strengthened to prevent this type of injury and pain in the future. Their activation alerts the neuromuscular system that everything is working properly and that it can relax and ease up on those spasms.

It is this process – not masking symptoms with muscle relaxers or going on an extended bed rest – that will stop uncomfortable and unsettling spasms and help your back pain release in an intelligent and deliberate way.

If this routine causes a lot more pain – back off. But, if you are dealing with current back pain, a mild continuation of that pain is to be expected when you start the routine with the extensions, then it should decrease as you continue through it.

For many, this routine provides instant relief. Regardless, it should drastically cut your recovery time, and most importantly, help you prevent back pain in the future. Muscle relaxers can’t do that and they’re not free, either.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.