Smoking Worsens Chronic Back Pain

Smoking Back Pain chronicNew findings out of the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting revealed another reason why you shouldn’t take up smoking if you want to have a healthy body. Researchers say smoking has been linked to worsening of degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine.

Degenerative disc disease is a natural process that occurs as we age, but that doesn’t mean everyone will suffer from painful symptoms. The condition occurs as the cervical discs between our vertebrae slowly break down over decades of use. If the condition worsens too much, the jelly-like central portion of the disc can rupture, causing pain and irritating local nerves. Living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent a speedy degeneration of your discs.

Smoking, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. Lead researcher Dr. Mitchel Leavitt said smoking can harm the small blood vessels in your back, which can make it difficult for oxygenated blood to flow in your back, exacerbating degenerative disc disease.

“Smoking is not healthy for a person’s intervertebral discs given the risk of developing microvascular disease – a disease of the small blood vessels – due to nicotine abuse,” Dr. Leavitt said. “Intervertebral discs receive their nourishment from the microvasculature that line the endplates on either side of each disc; when these blood vessels are damaged, the discs do not receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

Chronic Back Pain and Smoking

To understand how smoking contributed to chronic back pain, researchers evaluated CT scans of 182 patients who did not necessarily have back pain. 34 percent of individuals identified as smokers, and five cervical discs were given a grade on a 0-3 point scale with a 3 score denoting severe disc height loss. A five-disc total score between 0-15 was assigned to each individual.

After looking at the available data, researchers found that on average, smokers scored 1-point higher on the degeneration scale compared to non-smokers.

“This is another example of the detrimental effects of smoking. Tobacco abuse is associated with a variety of diseases and death, and there are lifestyle factors associated with chronic neck pain,” said Dr. Leavitt. “Pain and spine clinics are filled with patients who suffer chronic neck and back pain, and this study provides the physician with more ammunition to use when educating them about their need to quit smoking.”

So if you want to give your lower back the best chance to avoid chronic pain from degenerative discs, give up your smoking habit.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).