Smoking may be linked to chronic back and neck pain

Oct 6 2011
Women who smoke may be more likely to experience chronic back and neck pain as well as other problems, according to new research from the University of Kentucky.

About 80 percent of Americans will have back pain at some point in their lives. This condition can be caused by injury or damage to any of the structures in the spinal column. These include the vertebrae, the facet joints connecting the bones and the intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers, as well as any surrounding ligaments and muscles.

There are two types of pain that can affect the back and neck. Acute pain, which may be sudden and severe, is the result of an injury. This kind of pain should usually clear up within six weeks with the help of medications such as ibuprofen, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Chronic pain is pain that persists for more than three months, and may last even if the original cause of the pain has been resolved.

Smoking has been linked to chronic back pain in the past. This can happen because smoking may prevent the body from delivering nutrients to structures in the back, or because coughing that results from smoking could put extra mechanical demands on the spine and muscles, according to NIAMS. The habit also increases the risk of developing the bone-wasting disease known as osteoporosis, which makes the spine more vulnerable to fractures.

Researchers in Kentucky wanted to characterize the link between smoking and chronic pain even further for women. They surveyed more than 6,000 female subjects over the age of 18 years, assessing smoking habits and conditions such as neck pain, back pain, sciatica, joint pain, fibromyalgia and other problems.

Results showed that compared to nonsmokers, former smokers were 20 percent more likely to have some kind of chronic pain. Occasional smokers' risk increased 68 percent and daily smokers were more than twice as likely to experience chronic pain.

However, the direction of the relationship between smoking and pain remains unclear in this study.

"Does smoking cause more chronic pain, or do more women take up smoking as a coping mechanism for experiencing chronic pain?" asked researcher David Mannino, M.D.

The team speculates that acute pain could turn into chronic pain because smoking may interfere with the normal mechanics of the pain response.

Further research will need to explore the relationship between smoking, smoking cessation, psychopathology and chronic pain, the team said.