The Link Between Smoking and Back Pain

Board-certified neurosurgeon Dr. Patrick Doherty and our specialty team at Yale Neurosurgery New London in New London, Connecticut, are known for successfully treating spinal issues that result in chronic pain.

Read what our experts say about the ways that various components in cigarettes and other tobacco products affect your back health and even change the way you feel pain. 

Nicotine and pain

Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that’s a major component of cigarettes and other tobacco products. It’s a quick-acting analgesic that triggers the release of dopamine and other naturally occurring substances that temporarily lift your mood and relieve acute (sudden) pain.

These are the same “feel good” chemicals responsible for the so-called runner’s high some athletes experience after a tough workout. The positive effects of nicotine wear off quickly, however, and ongoing exposure to the drug eventually alters pain-processing functions within your brain.

These changes increase the intensity of the pain you feel and appear to play a measurable role in chronic (long-term) pain development.

Smoking and blood flow

Your body relies on healthy blood vessels to deliver oxygen and other vital nutrients to the muscles, ligaments, nerves, bones, and other tissue structures within your spine.

Smoking reduces your lungs’ ability to replenish oxygen levels within your blood. Chemicals within tobacco products affect your heart’s pumping action and reduce its ability to move blood through your circulatory system. 

Over time, smoking also narrows the blood vessels that feed the spine and its surrounding structures. This restricts much-needed blood flow to your back and often leads to back pain.

This is especially problematic for the spinal discs, which already have a limited blood supply. Over time, this impaired blood flow can speed up degenerative changes within your spine and increase your risk of developing disc disease, osteoporosis, and other painful conditions.

Restricted blood flow caused by smoking also affects the health of muscles, ligaments, and other soft-tissue structures in the back. This makes you more prone to muscular strain and other injuries.

Smoking and healing

Smoking causes systemic inflammation, impairs immune system function, and impedes other processes your body depends on to rebuild and repair tissue.

These factors, as well as the decreased lung capacity and circulatory issues associated with smoking, can significantly reduce your ability to participate during physical therapy. This may add weeks to your rehab process after back surgery or a back pain flare-up, and limit its overall effectiveness.

Smoking also reduces the usefulness of epidural injections and other minimally invasive treatments designed to relieve back pain. It also increases your risk of infection following back surgery and neck surgery. This can make you a poor candidate for various therapies that address the underlying cause of chronic back pain.

For more details about smoking and back pain, as well as information on quitting, schedule a visit at Yale Neurosurgery New London today.

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