Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in North America – it affects 8 out of 10 people at some point in their lives – and very often, it becomes a chronic condition whose origin is very hard to pin down. However, recently, a report in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery revealed a common thread amongst those who experience the highest levels of pain and the lowest levels of improvement from treatment – surprisingly, they found that severe back pain is largely related to smoking habits.
The research reported that smokers suffering from spinal disorders and back pain experienced more discomfort than spinal disorder patients who stopped smoking, in the course of an 8-month treatment period.
The researchers monitored more than five thousand patients with back pain and spinal disorders, who had been treated either surgically or non-surgically. They also documented details about each patient’s lifestyle and history, including smoking habits.
Using a common measurement for back pain (called the Oswestry Disability Index), a pattern started to emerge, showing a much greater improvement in back pain amongst non-smoking patients who had never smoked, compared to current smokers. The group that continued smoking throughout the treatment period experienced no significant improvement in pain level, while those who quit during the course of the treatment actually reported increased pain levels.
A previous study conducted by John Hopkins University researchers analyzed data from over one thousand patients, and suggested a link between smoking and back pain. At the time, they indicated that their findings supported the “vascular hypothesis” theory. This theory states that when arteries are clogged by smoking, the blood supply in the spine is affected and therefore causes disks to degenerate.
Disk degeneration can be very painful. During the John Hopkins study, subjects with a history of smoking were 25 percent more likely than non-smokers to develop chronic low back pain and 84 percent more likely to develop degenerative disk disease.
Many doctors will agree that pain elimination is not always easy, especially when it comes to back problems. Often times, it is difficult for doctors to pinpoint the exact source and to find an appropriate treatment. So the best approach is to try and take preventative measures. Try stretching your back often, avoiding long sitting periods, and resistance strengthening through exercising.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons admits that the negative impacts of smoking and treatment methods for back pain have not been well documented. They do believe that it is important to find ways to help patients learn to quit smoking. The academy notes that several studies have suggested strong links between cigarette use and back issues, such as disk degeneration, osteoporosis, arthritis, as well as delayed ligament healing.
There are many reasons to quit smoking; back pain is just one of many. If you or someone you know wants to kick the habit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers quit tips and smoking cessation resources that can help.