Smoking, a pain in the back

Smoking, a pain in the back

Smokers are thrice more prone to chronic back pain, Dr Neha Narula warns


Smoking is often seen as a risk factor for multiple medical issues. However, its relation to musculoskeletal conditions like that of back pain is rarely understood. In spite of regular exercise, a healthy diet plan, and a proper lifestyle, you may experience chronic back pain if you are addicted to smoking or often breathe in second-hand smoke.

While awareness brings in the understanding that smoking can lead to cancer and cardiovascular diseases, not everyone is aware of the fact that smoking can also cause lower back pain or could further worsen an existing back condition. Worldwide research suggests that smokers are thrice more likely to experience chronic back pain. They are also more likely to develop physical disabilities at an earlier age as compared to that of non-smokers.

Cigarette smoking reduces calcium absorption, prevents new bone growth and slows down the spine’s healing process. Coughing due to heavy smoking can also lead to increased intra-abdominal pressures which may further add to the back pain.

Here are three reasons why one should quit smoking immediately in order to avoid back pain:

Reduced blood flow to the discs and disc degeneration: The discs in your spine are gel-like cushions comprising 70% water. As the body mass increases, the discs dry up because of the load it has to bear. Smoking accelerates this process, creating friction between the vertebrae. Physiologically, smoking affects blood flow circulation and reduces the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the discs and joints. Due to smoking, a plaque is formed in the arteries, which further narrows, thus decreasing the flow of blood. As a result of this, the spinal discs become less elastic, hard and brittle. This results in disc degeneration.

Weakening of muscles and immunity: Nicotine in tobacco triggers the release of a chemical (dopamine), which tricks the body into reducing stress and thus into feeling good. Hence, smoking becomes addictive to the body. However, the same tobacco impairs the oxygen-rich blood flow to the bones and tissues thus leading to early signs of degeneration which may further lead to impaired bone and wound healing. It also prevents new bone growth and increases the risk of osteoporosis. Reduced cardiovascular capacity and fatigue weaken the muscles which make it difficult for the muscles to support the spine. 

Altered perception of pain: Interestingly, smoking alters the way you perceive pain. Nicotine affects the functioning of the brain and heightens a person’s reaction to pain. The connection between the nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex is altered, making a person less resilient to back pain. Quit smoking so as to protect and strengthen your back.

(The author is spine specialist, QI Spine Clinic)

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