It may be time to add spinal health conditions to the growing list of not-so-positive things associated with smoking. While smoking doesn’t automatically mean a person will develop spine problems, research suggests it does increase susceptibility to back pain, which already affects anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of all adults in the United States at some point. A Northwestern University study found that certain compounds in cigarette smoke make smokers prone to experiencing chronic pain, including lower back pain.
More than 4,000 chemicals are found in cigarette smoke, with the most potent being nicotine. If you’re one of 40 million or so adults in the United States who smoke cigarettes on a regular basis, a reduction in back pain could provide an added incentive to give up the habit. Here are a few things to consider related to smoking and chronic spine pain.
Finding a Link in the Brain
A recent study suggests that cigarette smoking may affect a part of the brain that controls pain, possible aggravating some spine-related problems and lower back pain. Two particular regions of the brain—those affecting addictive behavior and motivated learning—were also linked to the development of chronic pain. Additional research concluded that smokers are three times more likely to experience chronic pain (defined as pain continuing for six months or more) than their nonsmoking counterparts.
Whether or not a patient smokes may also affect the success of a surgical spinal fusion procedure such as extreme lateral interbody fusion. Beverly Hills patients should be aware that a possible reason for this effect is the connection between nicotine and bone growth. According to one theory, nicotine prevents essential nutrients from getting to the area where the bone graft is located, preventing it from fusing properly. Anti-inflammatory properties of nicotine may also affect the healing process.
Degenerative Spine Conditions
Smoking has also been linked to some degenerative spine conditions, especially in long-term smokers. Once again, the culprit is nicotine, which can restrict blood flow in areas that cushion individual vertebra, increasing the risk of developing degenerative spine conditions like spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) and osteoarthritis (affecting cartilage that supports joints). Smokers may also be more susceptible to experiencing pain from slipped or herniated discs. The chemicals in cigarettes affect intervertebral discs, which are the soft, spongy discs that cushion the spine as it moves. Degenerative disc disease, in particular, may be hastened by a reduction in essential nutrients caused by changes in blood vessels due to smoking.
Another comprehensive study, this one encompassing more than 50 years of research, found that smokers had higher instances of elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Hypertension and high cholesterol are conditions that can affect how nutrients are delivered via blood vessels to the lower back area, possibly accounting for increased instances of lower back pain among smokers.
Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, makes it more difficult for blood vessels to function properly. This issue is significant with regard to lower back pain because consistent high blood cholesterol levels have been linked to the development of lumbar spondylosis, a natural deterioration of the lower spine due to age and compression. Previous research suggests atherosclerosis may be a contributing factor to lower back pain and degenerative spine disorders.
Cigarette smoking is associated with an increase in inflammation, which can contribute to lower back pain. Even when patients are taking medication to control their inflammation, smoking may interfere with how some of those drugs work by minimizing the effectiveness of NSAIDs and other commonly prescribed medications for inflammation affecting the lower back.
Damaged Spinal Disc Cells
There’s evidence smoking may accelerate damage to the spine due to a toxic effect on the nucleus, or center, of cells within spinal discs. As a result of this cell damage, discs become progressively weakened, which increases the risk of experiencing a collapsed disc. Even if a disc doesn’t collapse entirely, it may become increasingly susceptible to herniation, which happens when inner disc material pushes outward.
Increased Back Pain Sensitivity
A study of 25,000 patients with spinal issues found that smokers reported more occurrences of back pain than nonsmokers in the same study. It’s been suggested that smoking may change the perception of pain by affecting the part of the brain that interprets pain signals.
Weakened bones can increase the risk of sustaining a spinal fracture. The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports a strong link between smoking and osteoporosis. One study noted a 5 to 10 percent increase in bone loss among women who smoked. There’s also evidence suggesting secondhand smoke may have a similar effect on bone mineral density.
When a patient is recovering from a spinal injury, smoking can increase the overall healing time or cause other issues with the natural healing process, which is why patients are advised to stop smoking prior to having any type of spine surgery.
Smokers may be up to three times more susceptible to developing spine problems than their nonsmoking counterparts. On a positive note, most of the adverse effects of smoking can be reversed by simply quitting. Studies suggest that after smokers kick the habit, they’ll no longer be at an increased risk of developing spine problems or have increased difficulty recovering from fusion surgery. Nicotine patches can reduce withdrawal symptoms as you wean yourself off cigarettes. The antidepressant medication bupropion works on chemicals in the brain to ease nicotine cravings. Your doctor or Beverly Hills spine surgeon can provide added assistance.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a sensible diet is one of the most effective ways to minimize lower back pain. Researchers suggest smokers with a history of lower back pain combine any treatments they’re receiving for their back pain with participation in smoking cessation programs and similar behavioral interventions to further reduce their discomfort. The benefits of quitting smoking are almost immediate.
For more information on the connection between smoking and spine health, reach out to the pioneering spinal health specialists at The Spine Institute. Our physicians lead the industry in the use of innovative techniques and cutting-edge technology for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of neck and back pain. Call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757.