A muscle relaxant is a drug which affects skeletal muscle function and decreases the muscle tone. It may be used to alleviate symptoms such as muscle spasms, pain, and hyperreflexia. The term "muscle relaxant" is used to refer to two major therapeutic groups: neuromuscular blockers and spasmolytics. Neuromuscular blockers act by interfering with transmission at the neuromuscular end plate and have no central nervous system (CNS) activity. They are often used during surgical procedures and in intensive care and emergency medicine to cause temporary paralysis. Spasmolytics, also known as "centrally acting" muscle relaxants, are used to alleviate musculoskeletal pain and spasms and to reduce spasticity in a variety of neurological conditions. While both neuromuscular blockers and spasmolytics are often grouped together as muscle relaxants, the term is commonly used to refer to spasmolytics only.
The earliest known use of muscle relaxant drugs dates back to the 16th century, when European explorers encountered natives of the Amazon Basin in South America using poison-tipped arrows that produced death by skeletal muscle paralysis. This poison, known today as curare, led to some of the earliest scientific studies in pharmacology. Its active ingredient, tubocurarine, as well as many synthetic derivatives, played a significant role in scientific experiments to determine the function of acetylcholine in neuromuscular transmission. By 1943, neuromuscular blocking drugs became established as muscle relaxants in the practice of anesthesia and surgery.