The Link Between Smoking and Chronic Pain

As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

If you suffer from chronic pain, there are some bad habits, like smoking, that may worsen or intensify your pain. In fact, smoking can put you at a higher risk of experiencing chronic pain in certain areas of your body, especially your back. In fact, smokers make up over half of people who get help for chronic pain, even though only 18% of Americans smoke.

Woman smoking
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The Link Between Smoking and Chronic Pain

Smoking greatly reduces the efficiency with which your heart and lungs work to deliver oxygen to your body. It is also associated with slowed healing, reduced skin elasticity, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. When all of these factors combine, they not only weaken your health, but they can also intensify feelings of chronic pain.

To work efficiently, your muscles and joints need a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood. Smoking not only tightens your arteries, it decreases the rate at which oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged in your blood. In other words, when you smoke, your muscles don't just get less blood, they get lower-quality blood.

Smokers also aren't great candidates for surgery. If you need an implantable device to help with your chronic pain, smoking makes it much more difficult to fight off potential infection from surgery.

Other side effects of smoking include fatigue, chronic lung disorders, and a slowed ability for your body to heal itself, which indirectly affect chronic pain. Fatigue and lung disorders lead to inactivity, which causes deconditioning. Slowed healing means that injuries affect you for longer than usual.

The Relationship Between Smoking and Chronic Back Pain

Studies have shown that smokers are more likely to develop chronic back pain than non-smokers. One study showed that both current and former smokers are more likely than people who have never smoked to have lower back pain, and that this association is higher in adolescents than in adults. The association was also higher with current smokers than former or non-smokers.

Researchers from Northwestern University released the results of another study that linked smoking with chronic back pain. It's the first study to reveal that smoking interferes with a brain circuit connected with pain, which makes cigarette smokers more susceptible to chronic back pain.

The study, which tracked 160 adults with new cases of back pain, found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain. The study also revealed that if you drop the bad habit, you can decrease your chances of developing chronic back pain.

Quitting Smoking Helps Chronic Pain

Giving up smoking isn't easy, but it can help you get part of your life back from chronic pain. Talk to your healthcare provider about potential medications and/or counseling options to help you quit. Not only can quitting decrease your chronic pain, it will increase your health and quality of life.

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Office on Smoking and Health. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2010. 6, Cardiovascular Diseases. 

Additional Reading

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.