Best treatments for headache, neck, and lower-back pain

Best treatments for headache, neck, and lower-back pain

Consumer Reports compares the effectiveness, safety, and price of muscle relaxants

Last updated: February 2015

At a glance

If you've ever had a back or neck muscle spasm, you know it can be exceptionally painful, and even debilitating. Muscle relaxants are widely used to treat these conditions, although there is limited evidence they actually help relieve symptoms. Many experts think the drugs' side effect of sedation is what actually helps people. But some of the drugs pose a risk of serious problems, including liver toxicity and addiction.

If you suffer from a headache, back ache, neck pain, or other conditions that cause muscle spasms, first try other therapies that don’t involve medications, such as using a heating pad, exercise, biofeedback, or progressive relaxation, massage, or yoga.

If those don’t help, a good next step is to try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generics), ibuprofen (Advil and generics), or naproxen (Aleve and generics). Adding a muscle relaxant to the mix has not been shown in studies to be any better at providing relief from this kind of pain than just taking one of the OTC pain relievers.

If you can’t tolerate the over-the-counter pain medications because you have other conditions, such as kidney or liver problems, bleeding ulcers, or heart issues, then you together with your doctor may want to consider taking a muscle relaxant as a temporary measure. People with liver or kidney disease, heart issues, or glaucoma should not use them, however.

We haven’t chosen any muscle relaxant as a Best Buy because there are few good-quality studies that show they are effective. Additionally, they also pose serious safety concerns, particularly for elderly people.

If you decide to try a muscle relaxant, they should not be taken for longer than three weeks. In addition to sedation, the most common side effects of muscle relaxants include dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, and weakness.

Safety Note: We recommend avoiding carisoprodol (Soma) because it is associated with a high risk of abuse and addiction potential not seen with other muscle relaxants.

How do you treat your muscle pain or spasms?

Tell us below!


Muscle relaxants is a broad category that includes a set of drugs that work in different ways. They are grouped together because they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat similar conditions and disorders. The result is that each medication may affect you—in terms of benefits and side effects—quite differently.

Many of the available studies on these medications are old and don’t meet today’s standards for high-quality research. So despite the widespread use of muscle relaxants, the evidence for several of these drugs is sparse or of low-quality. This makes it difficult to determine if any of the muscle relaxants are more effective or pose more safety concerns than others.

There are six muscle relaxants approved to treat back or neck aches, headaches, and other conditions that are due to painful muscle spasms. As you can see, all are available in generic forms. A few are available in combination with aspirin, codeine, and/or caffeine.

Table 1. Muscle relaxants

Generic name Brand name(s) Available as generic?
Carisoprodol Soma Yes
Cyclobenzaprine Flexeril Yes
  Amrix (long-acting formulation of cyclobenzaprine) Yes
Chlorzoxazone Lorzone, Parafon Forte DSC Yes
Metaxalone Skelaxin Yes
Methocarbamol Robaxin, Robaxin-750 Yes
Orphenadrine citrate Generic only Yes
Combination products    
Carisoprodol + aspirin Generic only Yes
Carisoprodol + aspirin + codeine Generic only Yes
Orphenadrine + aspirin + caffeine Generic only Yes

Who needs a muscle relaxant?

If you have a headache, backache, neck pain, or other conditions that are from having a muscle spasm, first try other therapies that don’t involve medications, such as a heating pad, exercise, biofeedback, or progressive relaxation, massage, or yoga.

If those don’t help, try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generics), ibuprofen (Advil and generics), or naproxen (Aleve and generics). Studies that compared those OTC pain relievers with muscle relaxants mostly found little difference in how well they improved pain or function—but the muscle relaxants were associated with much more sedation.

Taking an OTC pain reliever along with a muscle relaxant has not been shown to work any better than an OTC pain reliever alone for providing relief from a backache or other conditions that are due to spasms.

Which over-the-counter pain reliever is right for you? What to take when.

In some situations, muscle relaxants can be a preferred option for a short period. For example, some people may not be able to take acetaminophen if they have certain conditions, such as liver disease. And those with a history of bleeding ulcers, heart problems, or kidney problems may not be able to take ibuprofen or naproxen. Others may find that their muscle spasms make it difficult to sleep, so the sedation associated with the muscle relaxants could be viewed as a desirable side effect in this case.

When choosing among the many muscle relaxants, your doctor will take into account the severity of your symptoms, other medical conditions you have, and the common side effects muscle relaxants can cause. Those side effects, including dizziness and drowsiness, can be a concern for pilots, drivers, and people who use heavy or dangerous equipment.

Many of the muscle relaxants, including carisoprodol, chlorzoxazone, cyclobenzaprine, metaxalone, methocarbamol, and orphenadrine, are not recommended for use in people 65 years or older because the sedating effects could lead to accidents or falls.

When you first begin one of these drugs, take the first dose at a time when you do not have to be at work or go anywhere, such as in the evening or on a weekend, to see how much sedation you experience. Do not drink any alcohol while taking these medicines. And avoid driving, or operating heavy machines.

For treating back or neck pain from muscle spasms, muscle relaxants are typically used on an as-needed, short-term basis. Although they are sometimes given long-term for treating those conditions, there is little evidence to show that chronic use actually improves symptoms.

If the spasms last longer than a few weeks, you should discuss with your doctor whether you are truly benefiting from the muscle relaxant and whether it should be continued, and if other therapies should be tried.

How well do they work?

Cyclobenzaprine is the best studied of the muscle relaxants. In more than 20 studies—most of which involved people with back or neck pain and lasted for two weeks—cyclobenzaprine was consistently more effective than placebo on various measures of pain relief, functional ability, and muscle spasm.

One analysis of 10 studies of people who took cyclobenzaprine compared with people who took a sugar pill (placebo) to treat back or neck pain found that after 10 to 21 days, people with either types of pain who took cyclobenzaprine said their pain was reduced by about one point on 10-point pain or function scale, compared with those who took a placebo.

Carisoprodol and orphenadrine have been studied less, with only four trials for each drug. Both drugs appear to be more effective than placebo for relieving pain due to spasms.

There is not enough good quality research on the other medications—chlorzoxazone, metaxalone, and methocarbamol—to determine how well they relieve pain.

There are few high quality studies that have compared one muscle relaxant against another, so we can’t determine whether any one muscle relaxant is a standout. There is also not enough research to know if pills that combine a muscle relaxant with another drug, such as aspirin, codeine, or caffeine, are any more effective than a muscle relaxant alone.

Table 2. Studies done on muscle relaxants


Trials showing benefit vs. placebo

Carisoprodol +
Chlorzoxazone +
Cyclobenzaprine ++
Metaxalone +/-
Methocarbamol +
Orphenadrine +

* Key to chart:

++ = more than 10 studies showing benefit

+ = 2-4 studies showing benefit

+/- = inconsistent evidence.

Safety and side effects

One of the most common side effects of muscle relaxants is sedation. Most people experience it when they take one of these drugs. Below, we list other common side effects as well.

Some muscle relaxants have some serious side effects. For example, there have been rare cases of serious liver damage associated with chlorzoxazone, so this medication should not be prescribed to people with liver disease or hepatitis. The package insert (which can be found here) for each medication lists the side effects, and you can also ask your doctor or pharmacist.

The available research doesn’t show any clear differences between the muscle relaxants in the risk of different side effects they pose.

Table 3. Most common side effects of muscle relaxants

Sedation or drowsiness
Weakness or fatigue
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Dry mouth

Abuse and addiction

Although there are not enough studies to show the comparative risk of abuse or addiction between each of these drugs, almost all reports have been in people taking carisoprodol (Soma and generic). Carisoprodol is the only one of the muscle relaxants that is classified as a controlled substance due to the concern of a high number of reports of nonmedical emergency visits by the Drug Abuse Network and 88 cases of death attributed to carisoprodol in 2007.

There have also been a rising number of reports of misuse or abuse of cyclobenzaprine. From 2004 to 2010, there was a 100 percent increase in the number of emergency room visits associated with the drug.

Age, gender, and race differences

There is not enough relevant evidence from the available studies to determine whether the muscle relaxants have different efficacy or safety profiles in younger or older people, different races, or men and women.

Older people should not take these drugs because they are associated with a higher risk of fractures due to falls. The high risk of falls are likely due to the sedating effects of muscle relaxants and their effect of lowering blood pressure.

Choosing a muscle relaxant

We have not chosen any muscle relaxant as a Best Buy because there aren’t enough good-quality studies that show the drugs are effective. Plus, they pose serious safety concerns, particularly for elderly people.

If you decide with your doctor to try a muscle relaxant, know that they should be taken for the shortest time possible, not to exceed three weeks in most cases—and maybe less, depending on your pain. Due to the risk of sedation and other side effects, they should be used very cautiously and only with a doctor’s close supervision.

In addition to sedation, the most common side effects associated with muscle relaxants to watch out for include weakness or fatigue, dizziness, and dry mouth. Table 4, below, lists important considerations for each muscle relaxant.

We recommend avoiding carisoprodol (Soma) because it is associated with a high risk of abuse and addiction potential not seen with other muscle relaxants.

Table 4. Muscle relaxants: Key points

Generic name and dose Brand name Comments/Special notes
Cyclobenzaprine Flexeril
  • Effectiveness supported by strongest body of evidence.

  • 5 mg as effective as 10 mg, with fewer side effects.

  • Should not be used by people with heart disease, arrhythmias, or glaucoma.
Cyclobenzaprine Amrix
  • Sustained-release formulation allows for once daily dosing.

  • Not found to be more effective than standard-release formulation

  • No generic available.

  • Should not be used by people with heart disease, arrhythmias, or glaucoma.
Carisoprodol Soma
  • Metabolized to meprobamate, a drug classified as a controlled substance because of abuse and addiction potential.

  • Case reports of abuse and addiction.

  • Avoid using the drug due to risk of addiction.
Chlorzoxazone Lorzone
  • Rare cases of liver toxicity.

  • May cause red-orange urine but this is not harmful.
Metaxalone Skelaxin
  • Should not be used by people with liver damage or kidney disease.
Methocarbamol Robaxin, Robaxin-750
  • May cause black, blue, or green urine, but this is not harmful.

  • Should not be used by people with liver disease.
Orphenadrine Generic only
  • Should not be used by people with liver disease, heart disease, arrhythmias, or glaucoma.

How we evaluated the treatments

Photo: Getty Images

Our evaluation is based in part on an independent scientific review of the studies and research literature on muscle relaxant drugs conducted by a team of physicians and researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University Evidence-Based Practice Center.

This analysis reviewed more than 120 studies, including 52 trials for treating musculoskeletal conditions, nine systematic reviews, and three meta-analyses. The analysis also included studies conducted by the drugs’ manufacturers. This effort was conducted as part of the Drug Effectiveness Review Project, or DERP. DERP is a first-of-its-kind multi-state initiative to evaluate the comparative effectiveness and safety of hundreds of prescription drugs. We also relied on Cochrane reviews, low back pain guidelines from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society, and other articles.

A synopsis of DERP’s analysis of the muscle relaxant drugs forms the basis for this report. An additional literature search was conducted to capture the most recent published studies available on muscle relaxants.

A consultant to Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs is also a member of the Oregon-based research team, which has no financial interest in any pharmaceutical company or product. The full DERP review of the muscle- relaxant drugs is available here. (This is a long and technical document written for physicians.)

The Consumers Reports Best Buy Drugs methodology is described in more detail in the Methods section at


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Editor's Note:

These materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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