Being healthy with less pain is something we all want, but we all have habits that are not the best for our bodies. Be it a favorite sugary drink, junk food, alcohol, or tobacco, we would all probably feel a little better if we cut down more on these items. Smoking, however, is more of a health risk than others. We all know that smoking isn’t good for you, but did you know that smoking can cause pain for some people? It’s true. From lower back pain to joint pain, smoking can cause or worsen pain conditions for many. Here’s why.
The low down on smoking
Many people today know that smoking can cause a host of health problems. It can lead to heart disease and a variety of cancers. We all understand that it’s bad. But, did you know that smoking can cause pain? It’s been linked with a much higher rate of chronic pain, especially in your bones and joints.
Smoking still ranks number one on the list of causes of preventable death. Almost half a million people die every year in the U.S. from tobacco-related diseases. This is about 1/5th of all preventable deaths. In fact, according to the CDC, smoking is so deadly that it causes more deaths than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, and firearm incidents combined!
Smoking is often used as a crutch to cope with pain. The average rate in the U.S. is approximately 22% of the population, but among those who suffer from chronic pain, it is more than double that.
For those who suffer from chronic pain, smoking can be extremely detrimental to pain management. Research has shown that it can increase the perception of pain, which could lead to heavier smoking and more pain. Smoking also has a nasty tendency to reduce the effectiveness of pain medications requiring larger doses than average to work properly. Physicians have also found that it can reduce healing rates and increase general fatigue.
Other health effects of smoking
We understand the ill effects of tobacco better every day. Here is just a small excerpt of concerns that are known to be connected with smoking:
- Reduces the health of teeth and gums
- Can lower the chance of a woman becoming pregnant
- Reduces the fertility of men and increases risks of birth defects
- Causes inflammation and decreases overall immune system response
- Greatly increases the risk for cardiovascular disease
- Directly or indirectly causes cancer such as those in the colon, esophagus, stomach, lung, bladder, and kidney
What’s the link between smoking and back pain?
You’ve heard all the health risks related to smoking, or so you thought. Did you know cigarettes have also been linked to back pain?
That’s right, smokers face a heightened risk of developing lower back pain, according to research from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Additional risk factors to back pain uncovered by the research were obesity and alcohol abuse, which are common in smokers.
Doctors are hopeful that by uncovering the connection between cigarettes and back pain, patients can be better counseled about high-risk behaviors. The good news is that smoking-induced back pain is generally reversible once a person quits.
How does smoking increase the risk for back pain?
Researchers say that cigarettes influence brain circuitry between two powerful centers—addiction and motivated learning. This results in changes to how the brain responds to signals of back pain, with smokers demonstrating less resiliency to discomfort, according to research from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study found that smokers are three times more likely to suffer from back pain than nonsmokers, but researchers also found quitting the habit reduced risk.
To uncover the connection, scientists dove deep into the innermost workings of the brain. They found that tobacco strengthens communication between the parts of the brain related to addiction and motivated learning. These two sections are always talking to each other, but researchers found those patients with a stronger connection were more likely to experience chronic pain.
Researchers said it’s possible that there may be a strong link between addiction and pain, but more research is needed. Lead study author Bogdan Petre says the circuitry between those two brain sections—addiction and motivated learning—was very strong in smokers, but dropped off in those subjects who voluntarily quit smoking during the study. Once they quit smoking, they also reported less chronic pain.
Of course, that’s not all. Smoking can also cause changes to your brain chemistry.
Tobacco influences brain pathways linked to pain
The Northwestern research isn’t the only study to connect tobacco with changes in brain chemistry that lead to increased feelings of pain.
Smokers with spinal cord injuries report higher levels of pain than those with similar injuries who don’t smoke. Researchers at Purdue University investigated the mechanics behind the phenomenon. A neurotoxin called acrolein is generally blamed for the heightened pain. Researchers found that mice accumulated this substance in their spinal cord tissue, among other places, when exposed to the equivalent of 12 cigarettes each day for three weeks.
Researchers said a medication exists to lower levels of acrolein in humans, which could reduce pain in smokers. However, quitting smoking is another good way to reduce acrolein levels in the body and subsequently reduce pain.
Smoking hampers response to arthritis drugs
Not only does smoking cigarettes increase the amount of pain a person feels, it could also limit the effectiveness of drugs used to treat arthritis in the lower back, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.
This specific type of arthritis, known as axial spondyloarthritis (AxSpA), is a relatively newly named condition. While smoking is known to influence a person’s experience of back pain, scientists still aren’t sure how the habit affects AxSpA, but they do know it interferes with drugs to treat it.
The special class of drugs used to treat AxSpA, known as tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, is significantly affected by smoking, but only for current smokers. Researchers aren’t sure why, but say it’s important for patients receiving this type of medication to avoid smoking or quit.
Joint health risks due to smoking
Smoking has also been shown to damage joints, like the rotator cuff. Various studies suggests that smokers are twice as likely to experience a tear and 1.5 times as likely to have an overuse injury. New research also shows that smoking can have some devastating effects on many other parts of the musculoskeletal system.
At noted, the Cleveland Clinic department of pain management says that people who smoke are three times as likely to develop lower back pain than those who do not smoke. The inhalation of tobacco impairs the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to bones and tissues. This reduction of nutrition flowing to vital joints can cause serious damage and degeneration, which can lead to lower back pain and osteoporosis.
Similar research was done by the Association of Academic Physiatrists that shows smoking can worsen the degeneration of the discs in the cervical spine leading to chronic neck pain. Everyone experiences this effect as we age, but smoking was shown to increase the rate of this degeneration. Smoking also leads to a greater risk of developing microvascular disease, which damages the blood vessels along the discs, thereby reducing the nutrients that are supplied to these joints.
The spine is not the only joint that is in danger from smoking. Another study showed that smoking can have a detrimental effect on the knee as well. This study was conducted on 159 men with knee osteoarthritis. Those who were smokers had a greater risk of cartilage loss than those who were not. It was also shown that smokers had a higher severity of pain in the knee.
How to kick the habit
It is never too late to change your lifestyle to become a healthier you. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to stop smoking altogether. An easier-said-than-done situation, but it comes with lots of health benefits. Despite how addicted you may feel to cigarettes, it is completely possible to quit. While you may feel inspired after reading this article to crumple up your pack of cigarettes and throw them in the garbage, taking time to create a plan of action could help you succeed and kick the habit for good.
Make a plan and find new habits
First, you should always make a plan if you plan to quit smoking. Smoking usually becomes ingrained into your life, so quitting cold turkey without doing some prep work will likely lead to disaster. Toss out all of your tobacco products, like your ashtray and lighters, and wash off the smell of smoke from your home. Also, figure out when you usually smoke and consider some options for what you should do instead.
A large appeal of smoking is using your hands or mouth. Make sure you come up with something else to occupy the physical habit and it will go a long way in quitting. Don’t forget the mental addiction either. You want to replace your cravings with something healthier like small snacks, a glass of water, or meditation.
You might also think about new habits to develop—taking a walk after dinner, for example, instead of the usual smoke break. Part of the difficulty of quitting cigarettes is finding these new habits. Smoking, for many people, becomes part of their identity. It may be an activity you do socially, or a way to keep your hands busy while talking with a group. It may be a way to take a break from a frustrating work task or method of waking up in the morning.
Take some time to think about all the ways smoking is ingrained in your life. Then figure out new habits and rituals.
Build your support structure
Next, pick a day to quit and start building a support structure. Letting family and friends know ahead of time can let them prepare for your life change as you will likely need the help. They can also get ready for the withdrawal symptoms you might encounter, such as irritability, headaches, and anxiety. Luckily, these symptoms usually disappear after the first two or three months.
Another important thing is to change how you think about yourself. You probably consider yourself as a smoker, and when you quit, tell yourself that you used to smoke. It doesn’t matter if your last cigarette was a day or a year ago, but you no longer smoke. Talk to your friends and family about this, including those who still smoke.
Finally, it is best to take breaking any habit seriously. Forgive yourself even if you don’t succeed right out of the gate. A big mistake most people make is expecting that any relapse is a failure and shame spiraling because of it, which only makes it easier to start again. Forgive yourself for mistakes and celebrate every day you don’t smoke.
Note that cigarettes are a very real addiction. Your body will crave nicotine as you start to go into a withdrawal. You may want to develop a list of activities to try when cigarette cravings strike. See which ones work for you.
Activities to try include deep breathing. As you breathe, visualize fresh, clean air going into your lungs. Feel your lungs fill with air, and compare that to the feeling of dirty, toxic cigarette smoke filling your lungs. Call a friend for moral support or chew on a piece of gum. Talk to your doctor about nicotine patches or gum if you need more support. To find a doctor in your area who specializes in pain management, click the button below.