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Smoking and Back Pain

By: Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 18 Apr 2012 |
Smoking Back Pain Oxygen Damage Bone

Messages about smoking and its effects on health are everywhere – cigarette smoking increases the risk of cancer, lung disease and heart disease, and it can also damage skin and bones. Smoking is also associated with back pain, with smokers reporting more frequent attacks of back pain, which are likely to last longer and be more severe.

Back Pain in Smokers

In a study published in 1991, smoking seemed to increase the risk of serious back pain by 30% – it also increased the risk of pain in other joints. Another study, published in 2010, showed that ex-smokers and current smokers were more likely to have back pain than non-smokers were, and that the link between smoking and back pain is stronger in adolescents than in adults.

The link between back pain and smoking is not completely clear. It may be that people with back pain are more likely to smoke because of the discomfort, stress, depression or anxiety caused by the back injury and pain. The breathing problems and coughing caused by smoking can trigger back pain.

By damaging and clogging blood vessels, smoking reduces the amount of oxygen going to the muscles, joints and the discs between the vertebrae, which may make them more prone to injury. Smoking may increase the risk of inflammation in the muscles and other tissues. Smoking may also change the way that people feel pain.

Smoking reduces the body’s ability to heal bone and tissue damage, meaning that back injuries will take longer to get better. Smokers are also less likely to be fit, which will make them more prone to back injury.

Smoking and Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis, which makes bones weaker and more brittle, is a cause of back pain (see ‘Osteoporosis and Back Pain’). People who smoke are more likely to have osteoporosis. This may have a number of reasons – it could be because people who smoke tend to be thinner, are more likely to have a poor diet, drink more alcohol, or exercise less. Women who smoke may have lower levels of the hormone oestrogen and go through the menopause earlier, which increases their risk for osteoporosis.

To help replace bone mass, a healthy diet rich in calcium and regular exercise are important – and eating healthily and getting out into the park or to the gym could also help distract from wanting that next cigarette!

Smoking In People with Spine Damage

A study in 1999 in people with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (a curving of the spine that begins after the age of ten) suggested that smoking could have more of an effect on the frequency and severity of back pain in people who already have damaged spines. Therefore, people who already have spine damage and pain, and who also smoke, may notice even more of a difference if they give up smoking.

Giving Up Smoking

Giving up smoking helps general health, not only back pain. For many people, it is not easy to stop smoking. Doctors can prescribe nicotine replacement gum or patches, or these are available at pharmacists. Some people find that joining a support group or an alternative therapy like hypnotherapy helps.

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