Back pain is the most common source of pain that causes people to seek medical attention from their physician. While the pain may set in quickly, getting rid of it can be a much more daunting and time-consuming task. For those who do smoke, cigarettes can be a source of pain relief. However, whether used for relief or not, smoking can actually be a detrimental lifestyle choice for those suffering from chronic back pain and may lead to worsened pain, a slowed healing process, and heightened pain sensitivity.
How does Smoking Affect Chronic Pain?
The nicotine is what makes cigarettes so addictive. Nicotine causes the release of many chemicals in the brain that results in high levels of satisfaction throughout the body and leaves a person wanting to smoke more and more.
Additionally, nicotine may seem to provide a degree of pain relief for some individuals suffering from chronic back pain. However, this relief is only short-lived and does not provide any lasting effects. One study noted that 57 percent of back pain patients that were smokers reported feeling the need to smoke a cigarette to provide pain relief.
In fact, tobacco can actually make the pain worse and maybe one of the root causes of the pain altogether. When the body is injured, it sends lots of cells, oxygen, and nutrients to the area to heal the damaged tissues. When you smoke, the inhalation of tobacco affects your lungs and inhibits the body’s ability to oxygenate the blood that is circulated throughout the body. It can affect your blood vessels as well, causing them to narrow and harden and reducing their functionality.
The spine is a delicate area of the body, and because the spinal discs are composed primarily of connective tissue and cartilage, they receive limited blood flow, to begin with. This alone makes it more difficult for the spinal discs to heal themselves if they become injured. Restricted blood flow and oxygen due to cigarettes makes this problem even worse and can slow down the healing process substantially.
Cigarettes have also been linked to an increased risk for developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease that occurs when your body breaks down old bone faster than it can create new bone. This causes your bones to be fragile and increases the risk for fractures. If osteoporosis occurs in the spine, it can significantly increase the risk for spinal injury and chronic pain.
In addition to this, one of the most effective ways to slow the progression of osteoporosis is through exercise. But, smokers tend to be less active than non-smokers with the same demographics. A sedentary lifestyle and the health risks associated with it compounded with the other negative side effects of smoking can have a severe negative impact on the health of your back and body as a whole.
One study evaluated back pain risk and questioned whether it was any different in smokers versus non-smokers. They looked at 160 participants that had recently been diagnosed with acute back pain that lasted between four and 12 weeks, 32 individuals with chronic pain lasting longer than five years, and 35 people reporting no pain.
Over the course of a year, each participant filled out five questionnaires that asked questions about smoker status and other health issues and conditions. Each participant also underwent MRI scans so that their brain interaction and communication could be evaluated to determine addictive behaviors and learned motivation.
The specific areas of the brain being looked at were the nucleus accumbens and the medial prefrontal cortex. Researchers found that these areas of the brain played major roles in pain development. They discovered that if these two areas have a strong connection with one another, the body has a more difficult time fighting chronic pain. The study results of the MRI scans showed that smokers generally had a stronger connection between these brain regions and were three times more likely to develop chronic pain than those who had never smoked.
Other studies have demonstrated similar results. One study looked at nearly 35,000 people and assessed back pain severity and whether the individual had smoked cigarettes. Researchers found that 23.5 percent of those who had never smoked suffered from back pain, 33.1 percent of former smokers had pain, and 36.9 percent of current smokers reported pain. It was also noted that a higher number of cigarettes smoked each day correlated to a higher probability of back pain.
While the negative effect of cigarettes on the lungs and heart are well known, their impact on chronic pain is not as publicly advertised. This harmful behavior can have a significant impact on your spinal health, increasing the risk of being affected by chronic back pain and decreasing your body’s ability to heal itself from the damage.