Pain that does not go away can really nag at you, but there are over the counter muscle relaxers available to help. That is, they can help if the pain originates at your nervous system. Any pain you feel is a perception triggered by the nerves in an area of your body. Those nerves send pain signals in reaction to an injury, inflammation, infection or some other trauma or swelling. 

Although muscle relaxers have been tested and proven to be effective in alleviating the pain felt by many people, some claim these medications don't target the nervous system, but rather have an impact on your muscles. This isn't a bad thing necessarily, as it means that over the counter muscle relaxers may be just as good as their prescription counterparts at a lower cost.

What Are Muscle Relaxers?

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When it comes to finding relief from your pain, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of medications that promise to help — from prescriptions you get at a doctor's office to those you can buy in your local grocery store or pharmacy. And, if you've been in pain, you know the last thing anyone who is suffering pain wants to deal with is wasting time while trying to decide which medication to try.

The truth is, there are so many different medications available today that the question of, "Which one is the right one for me?" is a legitimate question you should ask yourself. The situation becomes even murkier when one realizes that sometimes the way medications are named can be misleading because they may not do what their names suggest.

Unfortunately, this is true both for prescription/traditional muscle relaxers and for over the counter muscle relaxers.

Although we will discuss the physical conditions for which muscle relaxers might be prescribed in a minute, it is important to understand, separately, what symptoms these medications treat.

Muscle relaxers are a class of medications designed to reduce pain that is muscular in origin, such as the muscle spasms suffered by someone with fibromyalgia. The term muscle spasm is pretty much self-explanatory. Muscle spasms are painful contractions of the muscle that can be caused by any of several different conditions.

The reality is, muscle spasms are not only a source of pain, but they can also impact a person's ability to be mobile and get around for day-to-day activities. Many men and women with conditions of muscle pain have mobility issues. Doctors commonly write short-term prescriptions for muscle relaxers for patients suffering from muscle spasms, in the hopes of reducing their pain resulting from the spasms and to help facilitate ease of movement.

Muscle relaxers, including over the counter muscle relaxers, are often prescribed along with a regimen of physical therapy, exercise, and stretching, as a way of working toward a general improvement in both the patient's pain and quality of life.

Traditional Muscle Relaxers

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Although traditional muscle relaxers are not the primary subject of discussion for this article, it is important to understand what these are in order to have a better understanding of how the over the counter muscle relaxers may be simultaneously similar and different.

For convenience purposes, prescription muscle relaxants are divided into two classes: antispasmodic and antispastic.

Antispasmodic medicines are chemically engineered to treat short-term muscle spasms as opposed to muscle spasticity, a condition in which the affected muscles are in a state of hypertonicity (tension with increased tendon reflexes) for a long period of time.

Spasticity — and the long-lasting pain that comes with it — is associated with conditions like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. As you may have figured, spasticity is treated by the antispastic type of muscle relaxants. Therefore, antispastic medications are the best choice for conditions like spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or other conditions where pain from muscle tension is experienced unendingly.

There are several types of prescription muscle relaxers, some of which are less commonly used. Here are five commonly prescribed muscle relaxant medications (listed by generic name):

  • Methocarbamol
  • Metaxalone
  • Cyclobenzaprine
  • Carisoprodol
  • Baclofen

These medications do not all work the same way. For example, baclofen works by acting at GABA receptors, while cyclobenzaprine falls into the anticholinergic and antimuscarinic category. Metaxalone's exact mechanism of action is not known, but this has not impacted its place among the other commonly prescribed muscle relaxers.

What these medications have in common is that they are nervous system depressants. As already mentioned, muscle relaxers act on the nervous system to interrupt those nerve signals before they reach your brain and are perceived as pain.

All the prescription muscle relaxants mentioned above are powerful medicines that can be effective. They can also, however, bring not only pain relief, but also some adverse side effects. These medicines can put excessive or undue strain on a patient's body in other areas. For example, they may greatly reduce muscle spasms and the pain with them, but using them might also do kidney or liver damage as they are metabolized.

We think it is pertinent to point out that doctors sometimes try to mitigate the risks that come along with such powerful medicines. Physicians often recommend patients try over the counter muscle relaxers first, as a precursor to moving forward with heavy-duty prescription muscle relaxants.

Over the Counter Muscle Relaxers

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Before we jump headlong into the question of what conditions muscle relaxers are used to treat, it is important to distinguish between the traditional muscle relaxers and the over the counter muscle relaxers that doctors sometimes prescribe as a first attempt at solving the issue.

Although there are many medications a person experiencing muscle pain can use for muscle relaxation effects, here are three major classes of over the counter muscle relaxers that are commonly recommended:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil)

Naproxen and ibuprofen fall into the class of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. otherwise known in the market as the NSAIDs class of drugs. Although these medications are obtained over the counter at a local pharmacy or grocery store, they can be very effective at treating pain that has an inflammatory component. So much so, that doctors will sometimes resort to having their patients try them first.

Since many conditions have an inflammatory component, including some that cause muscle spasms, NSAIDs are popular and effective medication options. NSAIDs do have their risks, though, which we'll discuss later.

Acetaminophen, more popularly known as Tylenol, is another over the counter muscle relaxer commonly recommended by some physicians as a first try at defeating pain. Although acetaminophen does not have the same anti-inflammatory effects that the NSAIDs have, this medication also can be effective at treating several complaints of pain, including those related to muscle spasms. (You may notice that we have focused on muscle spasms rather than muscle spasticity. That is because even the prescription muscle relaxers have debatable usefulness for spasticity. This means that conditions like cerebral palsy that are associated with spasticity are sometimes difficult to treat.)

What Conditions Do Rx Muscle Relaxers Treat?

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So, what physically painful conditions are muscle relaxers designed to treat? Although we have already mentioned that traditional muscle relaxers are divided into either antispastic or antispasmodic medicines based on what they are designed to treat, we still are left wondering which specific conditions would lead to a doctor prescribing the heavier class of prescription-based muscle relaxers?

Here is a general list of conditions these medications are designed to treat:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Muscle spasms due to acute musculoskeletal conditions
  • Muscle sprains
  • Muscle strains
  • Peripheral neuropathy

Of the traditional muscle relaxers, baclofen is a little unique in that it is the only one recommended for the spasticity that is associated with conditions like cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. Baclofen is also used in the treatment of alcoholism, as well as for the condition of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a condition that is associated with peripheral neuropathy.

Over the Counter Muscle Relaxers: Are They Safe?

The question of whether over the counter muscle relaxers as a group are safe is an important one.

Here, it will be important to make a distinction between the NSAIDs and Tylenol as the side effects and contraindications associated with these separate types of medications are inherently different. Although studies suggest that traditional muscle relaxers may not be needed if over the counter muscle relaxers like NSAIDs are useful, there are some contraindications to taking these medications.

Some adverse side effects of taking NSAIDs are the effects the medicine can have on the kidneys. They are not recommended, therefore, for anyone who has kidney problems because they can cause undue strain on already compromised kidneys or lead to complete kidney failure.

Also, NSAIDs are associated with gastrointestinal problems, including stomach bleeding. Therefore, anyone with a history of stomach ulcers should avoid any medication that is of the NSAID class.

Additionally, acetaminophen can cause fatal liver injury, so it is not recommended for people who have a liver injury, or people with a history of chronic alcoholism. Kidney damage with acetaminophen, although rare, has been documented.

Conclusion

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Over the counter muscle relaxers offer a convenient first stop medication for health care providers faced with addressing their patients’ muscle pains. These medications are important because if they can treat the pain condition, then traditional muscle relaxers with their greater cost and side effect profiles may not be needed. With this said, over the counter muscle relaxers come with their own problems, because of the effects that these medications can have on a person's kidneys and liver.

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