Background: The use of muscle relaxants in the management of non-specific low back pain is controversial. It is not clear if they are effective, and concerns have been raised about the potential adverse effects involved.
Objectives: The aim of this review was to determine if muscle relaxants are effective in the treatment of non-specific low back pain.
Search strategy: A computer-assisted search of the Cochrane Library (Issue 2, 2002), MEDLINE (1966 up to October 2001) and EMBASE (1988 up to October 2001) was carried out. These databases were searched using the algorithm recommended by the Cochrane Back Review Group. References cited in the identified articles and other relevant literature were screened.
Selection criteria: Randomised and/or double-blinded controlled trials, involving patients diagnosed with non-specific low back pain, treated with muscle relaxants as monotherapy or in combination with other therapeutic modalities, were included for review.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently carried out the methodological quality assessment and data extraction of the trials. The analysis comprised not only a quantitative analysis (statistical pooling) but also a qualitative analysis ("best evidence synthesis"). This involved the appraisal of the strength of evidence for various conclusions using a rating system based on the quality and outcomes of the studies included. Evidence was classified as "strong", "moderate", "limited", "conflicting" or "no" evidence.
Main results: Thirty trials met the inclusion criteria. Twenty-three trials (77%) were of high quality, 24 trials (80%) were on acute low back pain. Four trials studied benzodiazepines, 11 non-benzodiazepines and two antispasticity muscle relaxants in comparison with placebo. Results showed that there is strong evidence that any of these muscle relaxants are more effective than placebo for patients with acute LBP on short-term pain relief. The pooled RR for non-benzodiazepines versus placebo after two to four days was 0.80 [95% CI; 0.71 to 0.89] for pain relief and 0.49 [95% CI; 0.25 to 0.95] for global efficacy. Adverse events, however, with a relative risk of 1.50 [95% CI; 1.14 to 1.98] were significantly more prevalent in patients receiving muscle relaxants and especially the central nervous system adverse effects (RR 2.04; 95% CI; 1.23 to 3.37). The various muscle relaxants were found to be similar in performance.
Reviewer's conclusions: Muscle relaxants are effective in the management of non-specific low back pain, but the adverse effects require that they be used with caution. Trials are needed that evaluate if muscle relaxants are more effective than analgesics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.