Why Smoking Will Worsen Your Chronic Pain

Short-term relief from nicotine brings long-term problems

Do you look to smoking for relief from a bad back? Or aching joints? Or abdominal pain?

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Think twice before lighting up that cigarette. “Nicotine-induced pain relief is short-term. Over time, smoking may actually worsen your pain,” says pain management specialist Crawford Barnett, MD.

Smokers are nearly three times as likely to get lower back pain. Smoking may aggravate abdominal pain and joint pain, as well. In fact, smoking may increase pain sensitivity in general.

About 18 percent of people in the United States are smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet smokers make up more than 50 percent of patients who seek pain treatment.

How smoking hurts

The nicotine in tobacco can trick the body into feeling good — at first. It triggers the release of chemicals, like dopamine, which give off a satisfying, “reward” sensation. It’s what makes smoking so addictive.

But that same tobacco also impairs the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to bones and tissues. Decreasing blood and nutrient flow can cause degeneration, particularly in discs of the spine, which already have more limited blood flow. The result can be lower back pain and sometimes osteoporosis.

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Physicians also link smoking with fatigue and slower healing, factors that make painful conditions more prominent. Researchers are exploring even more physiological reasons why smoking makes people with fibromyalgia, arthritis and other chronic pain hurt more. 

“Almost everyone knows smoking can cause cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Barnett. “But not everyone realizes that smoking can make your pain worse.”

To make matters worse, when smokers suffer from debilitating pain, potentially life-changing treatments may not work.

Smokers aren’t the best candidates for implantable devices such as neurostimulators, which block pain sensation,” says Dr. Barnett. “Smoking impairs the immune system and increases the risk of infection after surgery.”

How to get started

Dr. Barnett actively counsels patients to quit smoking. “You may look to cigarettes for help coping with pain, anxiety or stress, but there are healthier ways to do that,” he says.

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Here’s what he suggests:

  • Schedule your “quit day.”
  • Ask your primary care doctor about medication or nicotine replacement products.
  • Consider additional treatments like acupuncture or hypnosis.
  • Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free help from trained coaches.
  • Get support from family and friends, and join a support group.
  • Take a walk whenever you feel the urge to smoke.

You can also start a new exercise program. Exercise activates endorphins, chemicals in the brain that can help block or lessen pain.

“Quitting smoking may be one of the most significant things you can do to both improve your health and manage your pain,” says Dr. Barnett.

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