The Growing Link Between Back Pain and Smoking

If you’re a smoker, then chances are you don’t want or need to hear even one more reason why your habit is doing you harm. But here’s another one anyway. Recent studies point to a link between smoking and chronic back pain, and though the reasons aren’t fully understood yet, it seems clear that the more you smoke, the higher your risk of having that pain.

Though there has not yet been a conclusive statement saying that smoking actually causes chronic back pain, part of the reason for that is that there’s no good way to conduct that scientific study: nobody is going to ask people to smoke in order to collect data. So the best that researchers can do is to track the experiences of those who do smoke versus those who don’t, and from doing that they’ve come to a few conclusions.

According to pain management specialist Dr. Crawford Barnett of Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital in Cleveland: “I think we can, with a fairly high degree of certainty, link smoking to multiple negative outcomes.” He lists a higher rate of osteoporosis among smokers, as well as of lumbar disc diseases of the type that we treat here at our lumbar spine specialty practice in New Jersey.  There is also evidence that smoking interferes with bone healing, and with the type of healing that generally keeps back pain a short-lived problem. For smokers, those short-term issues often turn into chronic ones.

Interestingly, one of the problems with cigarettes and back pain is that the nicotine in cigarettes provides pain relief. Though this would seem like a positive, the addictive nature of nicotine means that we quickly build up a tolerance to that effect, and that means not only that we end up smoking more, but also that in doing so we are getting less and less of an effect. It’s a self-defeating cycle that is doing damage at the same time.

Even if smokers are getting pain relief from the nicotine, at the same time it is constricting their blood vessels, cutting off oxygen to the area of the body that needs healing. For those with damaged vertebral discs, this makes healing even more of a challenge.

Perhaps most telling of all have been the statistical studies looking at the likelihood of spine problems among smokers versus nonsmokers. A study of Swedish construction workers found that those who smoked were more likely to need surgery for spinal stenosis, and another study found that those who smoked 15 or more cigarettes a day had a higher risk for the surgery than those who smoked 14 or less cigarettes per day. This means that the relationship between back pain and smoking is “dose dependent.” The more you smoke, the higher your risk.

Speaking of risk, perhaps the biggest risk of all for people with back pain who smoke is that smoking makes it far less likely to have a positive outcome from surgery of any type, to the point where some surgeons simply refuse to operate on patients who smoke. Smoking increases the risk of infection and interrupts the body’s healing mechanism.

If you are a smoker and you are experiencing back pain, one of the smartest things you can do — for a lot of reasons — is to quit. In any case, making an appointment with our lumbar spine specialist is sure to help provide you with relief. Contact us today.

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