How smoking can increase back pain
That next pack of smokes might just break your back.
Smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain, according to a new study out of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, that analyzed parts of the brain responsible for addiction and reward. Quitting the habit may decrease the chance of developing this often taxing condition.
“If the connection between smoking and [pain] risk is true, it gives smokers who want to quit yet another reason to keep trying,” says Dr. Aaron Miller, neurologist on staff at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill. “It also gives health care providers another target to identify and modify in their patients presenting with subacute back pain.”
Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the U.S., according to the American Chiropractic Association. It is also one of the most common reasons for missing work, and the second most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office.
The study observed 160 adults who noted new instances of back pain. The research was published online in the journal Human Brain Mapping, and was funded by the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
During the study, participants were given MRI brain scans and asked to rate the intensity of their back pain at five different times throughout the course of a year. They also completed questionnaires asking about smoking status and other health issues. Another 35 healthy control participants and 32 participants with chronic back pain were monitored.
The study looked at the connection between two areas of that brain responsible for motivated learning and addiction. Researchers found that those who smoked had an increased risk of chronic back pain compared to nonsmokers.
This is the first evidence to link smoking and chronic back pain – pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks.
“The study makes a convincing argument for linking smoking to increased connectivity of two parts of the brain, and that connectivity to a higher chance of going from subacute to chronic back pain,” Dr. Miller says. “There seemed to be a strong correlation even with the small number of patients ultimately studied.”
Smoking participants who managed their chronic back pain with medication, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, experienced some pain reduction, but the medications did not alter brain circuitry, the study shows.
“I would like to see the present study’s findings replicated with a larger number of participants or at pain clinics where it would indicate more generalizable results,” Dr. Miller says. “This study demonstrates that – just as in the heart, immune system, circulatory system and lungs – the bad effects of smoking can also be at least partially reversed in the brain if one does indeed quit smoking.”
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