Quitting smoking is can be an extremely challenging process, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your health. When you quit smoking, your body enters a state of nicotine withdrawal, which can cause an array of unpleasant symptoms. If you experience back pain, you might find yourself wondering, can quitting smoking cause back pain? Your back pain may worsen during the nicotine withdrawal period, however, this uptick in pain will be short-lived. It occurs because your sensitivity to pain temporarily increases as your brain adjusts to its nicotine-free state. Smoking, on the other hand, can actually cause or worsen back pain and the conditions causing it. In this guide, we explain the relationship between smoking and back pain, and delve into why quitting is the best course of action.
Back Pain After Smoking
If you’re experiencing back pain after smoking, you’re not alone.
In fact, research has shown that smokers are three times more likely to develop chronic back pain than non-smokers.
This study found a statistically significant relationship between back pain and smoking, with back pain prevalence among smokers sitting at 28%.
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It’s thought that back pain after smoking occurs for a few different reasons.
Does Smoking Make Back Pain Worse?
Smoking can make back pain worse. There are several factors that come into play here.
Smoking and Pain Sensitivity
Smoking is thought to increase pain sensitivity overall because it interferes with the brain’s ability to regulate pain signals.
The nicotine content in tobacco essentially tricks the body into feeling good. Nicotine triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for how we feel pleasure.
When your body receives a hit of nicotine, your brain releases dopamine which increases feelings of pleasure and decreases feelings of pain or discomfort.
However, the pain relief that comes from nicotine is short-term. In between cigarettes, any pre-existing back pain returns again, and often comes back stronger.
So, you reach for another cigarette to abate the pain, and the cycle continues.
Smoking can also cause back pain because smoking promotes increased inflammation through the body. When the body experiences high levels of inflammation, pain can occur or worsen.
Smoking and Blood Flow
When you smoke, the chemicals you inhale impair the circulation of blood through your body. This means your bones and tissues don’t receieve enough oxygen.
This decrease in blood and oxygen supply to the bones can cause bone weakening and thinning, particularly in the spinal discs which are naturally low in blood supply.
Nicotine can also actually alter the size of blood vessels in the body, which can result in increased damage to the ligaments and muscles surrounding the spine.
This can cause lower back pain and spinal deterioration.
Smoking and the Spine
Smoking directly impacts the discs within the spine.
Smoking reduces the nutrient exchange between the bone and spinal disc, which causes the disc to break down.
It’s also been proven that the 7,000 chemicals within tobacco can cause damage to the spinal discs and joints within the spine.
The presence of nicotine in particular can decrease the regeneration of cells within the spinal discs. This, combined with the lack of blood flow to the muscles surrounding the spine, can cause increased pain.
Smoking and Healing
Smoking has been linked to fatigue and slower healing processes within the body.
Your immune system is impaired when you smoke, which means your body is slower to heal injuries naturally. So, if you do injure a spinal disk, it will take longer to heal and therefore result in more pain.
Additionally, when you have a weakened immune system, your body is at greater risk of developing complications and struggling to heal after surgery.
If you have a weakened immune system due to smoking, you may not be eligible for certain surgeries that could treat your back pain. This means your back pain may progress and worsen.
Smoking is also known to interfere with medications prescribed to treat back pain by limiting absorption levels in the body.
Types of Back Pain Affected By Smoking
A number of specific spinal conditions can be caused or worsened by smoking. Smoking can also hinder the success of certain procedures and treatments used to combat back pain.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Smoking has been linked to the development of degenerative disc disease, which is also known as disc dehydration.
Disc degeneration can occur due to the effects of nicotine on the vascular system. The toxic chemicals in tobacco can also cause cellular damage, which leads to disc degeneration.
Smoking increases the risk and worsens the symptoms of osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a condition that causes the bones to become thin and weak, so much so that they regularly fracture or break.
The condition can occur due to unchangeable factors, such as ageing, as well as lifestyle factors, including tobacco use.
As mentioned, smoking limits the blood and oxygen supply to the bones, which can cause them (the spine in particular) to become thinner, weaker, and more prone to breaks or fractures.
In other words, osteoporosis is more likely to occur in smokers due to the lack of adequate oxygen and blood supply to the bones.
Fibromyalgia is an incurable condition that caused widespread tenderness and pain in the body.
Each patient presenting with the condition will have their own set of symptoms.
A study found that smokers with this condition experienced an increase in the severity of their symptoms, as well as increased anxiety.
Spinal fusion is a surgery that permanently connects two or more vertebrae in the spine. It is used to correct problems in the spine and help relieve the painful symptoms of a number of back and spinal conditions, including degenerative disc disease and scoliosis.
Smoking can delay or prevent successful fusion of the vertabrae and interfere with the healing process post-surgery. In fact, smoking can negatively affect spinal surgeries in general.
Fo this reason, many surgeons require patients to quit smoking before attempting these surgeries.
Can Quitting Smoking Cause Back Pain?
Occasionally, people report worsened back pain after quitting smoking. This happens due to the nicotine withdrawal process.
When you smoke, over time, your body becomes dependent on nicotine. Your brain becomes used to receiving a regular dose of nicotine, and when you go without a cigarette for a few hours or more, your body begins to crave another hit of nicotine.
At this point, your body enters a state of nicotine withdrawal. Your body then signals that it desires another cigarette through a range of uncomfortable symptoms including cravings, anxiety, irritability, flu-like symptoms, stomach upset, headaches, and increased sensitivty to pain.
Nicotine withdrawal essentially unmasks any pre-existing pain or conditions that were temporarily relieved by the nicotine-induced dopamine release.
In other words, when you quit smoking, nicotine is no longer tricking your brain into releasing dopamine and interrupting your pain signals, which means you’ll feel any pain that was already there more intensely.
Nicotine withdrawal is at its most intense in the first three days after quitting. The physical symptoms of withdrawl, including increased pain, will reduce in intensity within the first few days of quitting, and taper off completely within about 4 weeks.
It’s important to remember that while quitting can cause a temporary uptick in back pain, this will pass. Back pain caused by smoking, on the other hand, will worsen the longer you continue to smoke.
Will Quitting Smoking Help Back Pain?
The neurological and vascular effects of smoking can be reduced by quitting, but cannot be fully reversed.
Former and current smokers are at an increased risk of developing lower back pain and degenerative disc disease due to smoking.
However, quitting is still the best thing you can do to improve your back pain. Giving up cigarettes can prevent back pain from worsening and can prevent further degeneration from occuring.
When you quit, your circulation, blood flow, and immune system function all improve. All of these factors support spinal health and reduce back pain.
Smoking and Neck Pain
Some smokers experience pain in the right side of the neck after smoking, as well as generalised neck pain.
The cervical spine is the neck region of the spinal bone. It consists of vertebrae with cervical discs in between them that absorb shock sustained by the spine.
Smoking can damage the cervical discs in the neck. These discs naturally become dehydrated and shrink as we age, but smoking accelerates this wear and tear.
This occurs because the nicotine within tobacco increases the risk of microvascular disease, which is disease of the small blood vessels.
The intervertebral discs source nutrition from the microvasculature that lines both sides of the disc. If the blood vessels become injured due to smoking, the discs cannot be nourished properly, which leads to disc degeneration.
A study has shown that current smokers had more severe cervical degenerative disc disease than non-smokers.
Another study found that smoking increases the rate at which the cervical discs degenerate, leading patients to present with more severe neck and shoulder pain.
Quitting Smoking: The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Back Pain
While quitting smoking can cause back pain, this increase in pain is temporary and occurs due to the nicotine withdrawal process.
When you smoked, nicotine triggered the release of dopamine in the brain which masked any pre-existing back pain. When you quit, your body may experience heightened sensitivity to pain due to the drop-off of nicotine. This will level out within one month of quitting, once your nicotine withdrawal subsides.
Smoking, on the other hand, can actually cause a number of back conditions and significantly worsen back pain and spinal conditions, including degenerative disc disease, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia. Smoking also interferes with the body’s ability to heal properly, and for this reason, many surgeons consider smokers ineligible for spinal surgery.
Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your back pain. The process can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Talking with a trained, specialist GP is a good place to start. You can book a 100% free, bulk-billed telehealth consultation to start your quitting journey today.