There’s a lot of misconception about the difference between muscle relaxers and painkillers. There’s also confusion regarding the role CBD oil plays as an alternative treatment option for both.
First, painkillers function via the central nervous system (CNS). They work to “deceive” the mind into thinking there is no pain, when in reality there is.
Consider a serious bone fracture. A skateboarder shatters his tibia into 19 different pieces and rushes to the nearest emergency room. Once doctors shoot him up with dilaudid (or morphine, or whatever), pain receptor function ceases and he becomes none the wiser regarding the searing pain that’s coursing through his body. In fact, he’s probably happy as a clam.
Do muscle relaxers work the same?
Muscle relaxers (known in the clinical world as ‘neuromuscular blocking agents’) work differently. Instead of functioning through the CNS by blocking pain transmission at the brain, they function at the actual site of the muscle(s). This cuts off nerve transmission at the acute musculoskeletal level. Think of painkillers as affecting the brain, and muscle relaxers as affecting actual muscles.
Understandably, this brings about some confusion as to what cannabis’ exact role is in terms of pain management. We all know that CBD is an excellent pain modulator within the central nervous system, but does it function at the actual site of muscles as well? In other words, is CBD oil as a muscle relaxer an actual thing, or are people just getting the terms ‘muscle relaxers’ and ‘painkillers’ mixed up?
As it turns out, cannabis does function well as both a neurological “painkiller” and an acute neuromuscular blocking agent.
In this article, we’ll go over exactly how CBD as a muscle relaxant functions at the physiological level. Many people are switching over from their prescription relaxant medications to CBD oils. This is for a number of different reasons, which we’ll talk about below.
As is always the case with health, however, it pays to know what’s going on at the physiological level before you jump headlong into a new treatment option.
Muscle Relaxers: What are they, and why are they dangerous?
Liked we explained briefly, muscle relaxers work by severing neurological communications between the CNS (the brain) and the actual muscles themselves. In that regard, relaxants and painkillers are indeed similar. The only real difference is the specific location where the nerve transmission interruption takes place.
Now bear in mind that is a broad, relative explanation. If a neurologist were to read that, they’d probably feel inclined to elaborate on several dozen different things to provide a more exacting definition. But for our purposes, it will suffice.
In terms of the different kinds of muscle relaxers out there, several different types are commonly prescribed to treat localized spasticity. More often than not they’re used as acute (temporary) treatments, but sometimes they can be used along with opioid painkillers for effective treatment of chronic pain as well.
Common Muscle Relaxers
Xanax and Valium are probably the two most well-known muscle relaxers. These drugs are called benzodiazepines. Though they’re often used as anti-anxiety or sleep medications, they have good muscle-relaxing properties as well. Valium especially is a frequently prescribed relaxant for mild-to-moderate acute musculoskeletal pain wherein full-strength opioid painkillers are unnecessary.
Drugs like Zanaflex (tizanidine) are also common and work to reduce spasticity in cases of spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis (of which CBD is another great treatment option, by the way).
Prescription medications like Soma (carisoprodol), Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine), and Robaxin represent the strongest class of muscle relaxants. These are Schedule IV Controlled Substances (as are Xanax and Valium). They produce meprobamate as a byproduct of their chemical breakdown. Meprobamate is a powerful tranquilizer that produces a sensation of whole-body euphoria. It is dangerous because it can galvanize dependence, abuse, and full-on addiction.
While not statistically as dangerous as opioid painkillers, prescription muscle relaxants still present a dangerous array of potential side effects (such as depression, low blood pressure, and liver problems), and can even be fatal when combined with alcohol or over the counter sleep medications. (Sadly, many combine muscle relaxants with heavy alcohol use as a potential means for suicide).
What are Muscle Relaxants Used for?
Muscle relaxers are used for uncontrollable muscle spasms that originate via neurological impulses sent from the central nervous system. These spasms (which can be extremely painful) originate from several different things:
- Spinal cord injury or damage (the brain and spinal cord compose the CNS)
- Diseases like multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and fibromyalgia
- Acute muscle strains and tears
Some use prescription pharmaceutical relaxants to treat these involuntary muscle contractions. The relaxants work by interrupting neurological communication at the site of the muscle. Spastic signals from the CNS come to a stop, and the muscles relax and shut down. (Surgical procedures also sometimes incorporate relaxants to provide temporary paralysis).
You can see then, the difference between the function of painkillers and muscle relaxants; in our aforementioned hypothetical situation of the skateboarder with the shattered tibia, a muscle relaxant would be an entirely insufficient treatment – he’s dealing with severe acute trauma, not spastic neurological signals between the CNS and various muscle groups.
CBD Oil as Muscle Relaxant: So how does it work?
With the fundamental understanding of muscle relaxants and what they do behind us, we can now look into the physiological roles of CBD (cannabidiol) oil, and how it functions as a neuromuscular blocker.
When muscle groups contract (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), it is in response to a nerve impulse that originates from within the central nervous system. Long neurons extend from the spinal cord and stretch outwards to various organs and muscle groups throughout the body. When these neurons reach the synapse of a particular group of muscle fibers, cell-to-cell communication takes place and the fibers contract. (That’s an elementary way to put it, but it will have to suffice in order to skip talking about action potentials, sarcomeres, and ion differentiation across cell membranes).
In any regard, in order for CBD to work as a muscle relaxant, cannabinoid receptors must be present at the site of muscular synapses. This is where the endocannabinoid system comes in.
If you haven’t heard of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), you need to inform yourself now. In short, it is an innate network of cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that occur 100% naturally in the human body. Everyone has the receptors, whether they’ve smoked marijuana every day for 50 years or have never touched the drug in their life.
The ECS: A complex yet remarkable receptor network
Studies have shown the ECS to be present in virtually every single physiological system in the human body. In a nutshell, this explains the incredibly far-reaching medical potential of cannabis.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has called the endocannabinoid system “… the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
In terms of the ECS acting as a muscle contraction regulatory device, studies have found cannabinoid receptors in the signaling machinery of skeletal muscle. In other words, it appears cannabinoids (such as CBD) may play a significant role in the communication between muscle groups and the neurons that control them.
Remember research is still a long way off in regards to pinpointing how this works. Also, it is unclear how exactly the ECS functions regarding the chemical pathways of cell-to-cell communication. One thing is for certain, though — cannabinoids absolutely play a part in the alleviation of muscle spasticity.
In fact, cannabis has for years shown excellent results in multiple sclerosis patients that deal with chronic spasticity. It’s only been somewhat recently, though, that individuals started using the oil to treat spasms stemming from other conditions.
Why CBD Oil?
If you’re wondering why we keep talking about CBD, or if you’re wondering what the heck it even is, it’s essentially a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that comes from the marijuana plant.
The two primary cannabinoids in marijuana are THC and CBD. THC is the psychoactive component that’s responsible for getting us high. When you smoke a joint, for example, you inhale both CBD and THC. CBD oil is an all-natural extraction of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid. That is, a way to receive all the medical and therapeutic benefits of cannabis without having to get high.
CBD as a Muscle Relaxant: The Bottom Line
Alleviating muscle spasms at the molecular level is just one of the many potential uses of CBD. Thousands of people have switched over to it from prescription medications (like carisoprodol or benzodiazepines) due to the high costs and dangerous side effects of the latter.
Keep in mind though that CBD oil for muscle spasms will not work for everyone. If you’re considering using it for your own condition, do your research and select a reputable tincture.
The oils we’ve selected below have been some of the most reputable and proven brands in recent years. They have shown good results for a variety of muscle and pain-related conditions, including spasticity.