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The Link between Smoking and Back Pain

Doctors have known for some time that tobacco use has direct correlations with back pain. Smokers consistently report issues with a range of chronic pain. There are volumes of studies that back this up as well. Plenty of research has demonstrated links between tobacco use and the following:

Back pain
Image: flickr.com/photos/travelinlibrarian

  • Lower back pain
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Poor patient outcomes following surgery

This is one of those foggy areas of research that demonstrates plenty of correlation but has trouble nailing down the actual causality. There is no question that smokers report more intense levels of pain (particularly chronic, serious pain) than their non-smoking counterparts. What we cannot show with absolute certainty is why this would be the case.

So how strong is this correlation? As it turns out, some studies and surveys have revealed that smokers have a 300 percent greater incidence of chronic back pain. For smokers who suffer from back pain, quitting makes a lot of sense.

How does smoking cause back pain?

We have already established that the link between smoking and back pain is difficult to explain. For that reason, it’s difficult to say with certainty how or why this phenomenon happens. Some experts have even suggested that tobacco use is simply a by-product another problem with a more understandable link to back pain.

For example, depression and high levels of stress have been linked to incidences of chronic pain. They have also been linked to smoking. To that end, it is possible that those smokers who experience chronic pain are more likely to smoke because they are in pain to begin with.

That’s one angle, but it is by no means all of the story. Nicotine – along with many of the toxins that are found in tobacco – actually lead to bone loss. There are several ways that smoking can deteriorate bones, including the following:

  • Producing free radicals, which kill off bone-making cells (osteoblasts)
  • Increasing production of cortisol, an agent that breaks down bones
  • Decreasing circulation, which in turn leads to impaired healing from fractures
  • Decreasing oestrogen, which has been linked to greater risk of osteoporosis

In short, smoking produces a cascade of events in the body, many of which contribute to bone and spinal issues. Quitting today bodes well for your lumbar health.

Quitting smoking could decrease chronic back pain.

There is one more line of research on this front that is much more conclusive. Smokers who kicked the habit after surgery recovered significantly faster than those who did not. This means that quitting is particularly important for anyone who is undergoing surgery on their spine.

Quitting is difficult, and – as nicotine is at least partially to blame – it’s not enough to simply eliminate tobacco. Patches, gum and inhalers will still complicate recovery. This is how the electronic cigarette can be particularly useful. For those who can afford to quit over time, puffing on this cigarette replacer allows a person to quit without feeling like they’re going cold turkey.

Furthermore, the nicotine level can be gradually stepped down, allowing the person to continue feeling like they are smoking while reducing the nicotine in their body. Meanwhile, for those who require back surgery and do not have time to step down, an e-cig could potentially serve as a crutch by simply filling it with e-liquid that has no nicotine in it.

While this may not satisfy the nicotine craving, it will at least give the patient a partially satisfying form of release that can help see them through the recovery. Assuming they can stick to the regimen, recovery from the surgery will be faster and more complete.

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