OBJECTIVE To investigate the efficacy, acceptability, and safety of muscle relaxants for low back pain.
DESIGN Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.
DATA SOURCES Medline, Embase, CINAHL, CENTRAL, ClinicalTrials.gov, clinicialtrialsregister.eu, and WHO ICTRP from inception to 23 February 2021.
ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA FOR STUDY SELECTION Randomised controlled trials of muscle relaxants compared with placebo, usual care, waiting list, or no treatment in adults (≥18 years) reporting non-specific low back pain.
DATA EXTRACTION AND SYNTHESIS Two reviewers independently identified studies, extracted data, and assessed the risk of bias and certainty of the evidence using the Cochrane risk-of-bias tool and Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations, respectively. Random effects meta-analytical models through restricted maximum likelihood estimation were used to estimate pooled effects and corresponding 95% confidence intervals. Outcomes included pain intensity (measured on a 0-100 point scale), disability (0-100 point scale), acceptability (discontinuation of the drug for any reason during treatment), and safety (adverse events, serious adverse events, and number of participants who withdrew from the trial because of an adverse event).
RESULTS 49 trials were included in the review, of which 31, sampling 6505 participants, were quantitatively analysed. For acute low back pain, very low certainty evidence showed that at two weeks or less non-benzodiazepine antispasmodics were associated with a reduction in pain intensity compared with control (mean difference -7.7, 95% confidence interval-12.1 to-3.3) but not a reduction in disability (-3.3, -7.3 to 0.7). Low and very low certainty evidence showed that non-benzodiazepine antispasmodics might increase the risk of an adverse event (relative risk 1.6, 1.2 to 2.0) and might have little to no effect on acceptability (0.8, 0.6 to 1.1) compared with control for acute low back pain, respectively. The number of trials investigating other muscle relaxants and different durations of low back pain were small and the certainty of evidence was reduced because most trials were at high risk of bias.
CONCLUSIONS Considerable uncertainty exists about the clinical efficacy and safety of muscle relaxants. Very low and low certainty evidence shows that non-benzodiazepine antispasmodics might provide small but not clinically important reductions in pain intensity at or before two weeks and might increase the risk of an adverse event in acute low back pain, respectively. Large, high quality, placebo controlled trials are urgently needed to resolve uncertainty.