Neck pain is a very common condition that most people experience at some point in their lives. The neck, also known as the cervical spine, supports the weight of the head and enables movement. Neck pain often arises from muscle strain, injuries, poor posture, arthritis, or pinched nerves. While some neck pain resolves on its own with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers, recurring or chronic neck pain may require prescription medication for relief.
When it comes to prescription medication for neck pain, there are several options doctors may consider depending on the cause and severity of pain:
Muscle relaxants are often the first drugs prescribed for acute neck pain caused by muscle spasms or muscle tension. Muscle relaxants work by blocking pain signals from nerves to the brain and relaxing muscles. Some common muscle relaxants used for neck pain include cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), carisoprodol (Soma), metaxalone (Skelaxin), methocarbamol (Robaxin), and tizanidine (Zanaflex). These medications are generally prescribed for short-term use alongside rest and physical therapy. Potential side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, and headache.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of pain relievers that reduce inflammation and pain signals. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are over-the-counter NSAIDs that may provide relief for mild neck pain. For more severe neck pain, doctors may prescribe stronger prescription NSAIDs such as diclofenac, meloxicam, or celecoxib. NSAIDs should be used with caution due to potential gastrointestinal, liver, and kidney side effects with long-term use.
Oral corticosteroid medication, such as prednisone, is sometimes prescribed for severe neck pain caused by nerve compression. Steroids help decrease inflammation pressing on nerves. However, long-term steroid use can result in many side effects, so doctors carefully weigh the risks and benefits before prescribing. Local steroid injections directly into the neck may also be an option to reduce localized inflammation from injuries or arthritis.
Muscle Relaxant-NSAID Combinations
Some prescription medications combine muscle relaxants with NSAIDs for dual anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxing effects. Common combination drugs prescribed for acute neck pain include Robaxacet (methocarbamol + acetaminophen) and Vimovo (naproxen + esomeprazole). These combined medications provide more pain relief than either drug alone. As with their individual components, potential side effects include gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, and drowsiness.
For chronic neck pain, tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline may be prescribed in low doses to help block pain signals. Other antidepressants like duloxetine (Cymbalta) and milnacipran (Savella) dampen pain transmission in the central nervous system and are FDA-approved specifically to treat chronic musculoskeletal pain. Antidepressants typically take several weeks to start providing pain relief. Side effects may include nausea, headache, insomnia, and fatigue.
Opioid narcotic painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, were widely prescribed for chronic neck pain in the past. However, due to the high risk of addiction and overdose, opioids are no longer recommended as a first or second-line treatment for most cases of neck pain. Opioids may still be cautiously prescribed for short-term use in severe cases if other pain medications are inadequate. Careful monitoring and limiting prescription quantities can help reduce risks if opioids are deemed medically necessary.
In summary, muscle relaxants, NSAIDs, combined relaxant-NSAID drugs, and antidepressants are typically considered safer drug options for managing most neck pain. Steroid injections and possibly short-term opioids may have a role for certain severe cases under medical supervision. Finding the right medication or combination medication regimen takes some trial and error with your doctor’s guidance. The lowest effective dose should be used for the shortest time period possible to safely relieve neck pain symptoms. Non-drug treatments like physical therapy, massage, and posture correction are also important complementary approaches.