What are anticholinergic drugs?

Anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs include a broad class of medications that are used to treat various medical conditions that involve contraction and relaxation of muscles. Examples of these conditions include overactive bladder, muscle spasms, breathing problems, diarrhea, gastrointestinal cramps, movement disorders, and others. Anticholinergics work by blocking the action of acetylcholine in the brain and at nerves. Neurotransmitters are chemicals made and released by nerves that travel to nearby nerves or, in the case of acetylcholine, nearby muscles and glands where they attach to receptors on the surface of the nerve, muscle, or glandular cells. The attachment of the neurotransmitter can stimulate or inhibit the activity of the receptor-containing cells. Anticholinergic drugs affect the function of many organs by preventing acetylcholine from binding to its receptors.

Anticholinergic drugs decrease the activity of muscles in the gut and reduce production of sweat, saliva, digestive juices, urine, and tears. Additionally, anticholinergic drugs help to balance the production of dopamine, another neurotransmitter that plays an important role in maintaining mood, movement, memory, attention, problem solving, motivation, and pleasure.

In addition to drugs that are primarily anticholinergic, there are drugs used for purposes other than nerve, muscle, or glandular problems which have some anticholinergic effects that are considered side effects, for example, antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs.