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Smoking's Connection to Back Pain

Numerous health consequences of smoking have been known for decades.  But you may be surprised to learn the damage this habit can do to your spine. In the last few years, more research indicates a link between smoking and back pain.  But tobacco itself is not the only culprit.  The lifestyle adopted by many smokers can also aggravate the spine.

Nerves Need Nutrients

Tobacco smoke contains a whopping 4,000 chemicals- and 50 of those are linked to Cancer. (1)  Ingredients like nicotine and carbon monoxide constrict the arteries and interfere with blood circulation.  This results in oxygen and other nutrients not being properly circulated.  The nerves in the spine weaken and wither. Without sufficient oxygen and nutrients, your spine is unable to repair and heal itself.  A long term study from John Hopkins University showed a definite link between smoking and developing lumbar spondylosis ( a term doctors use to refer to spine degeneration, neck and back pain). Researchers studied 1300 physicians who had a history of smoking, along with higher cholesterol levels, were more likely to suffer from lumbar spondylosis.(2)

Smoking is also a key component in atherosclerosis- a dangerous condition in which plaque reduces the amount of space available for your blood to circulate.  This can lead to heart attack or stroke.  As it relates  to low back pain, atherosclerosis disrupts proper blood flow in the abdominal arteries that feed the spine.  The spinal discs can become brittle and painful.

As well as a lack of nutrients, there’s another cause of smoking related back pain: smokers frequently cough.  This reaction stresses the back’s lumbar discs and over time this can cause pain.

The Smoking Lifestyle

There are also indirect reasons why smoker’s suffer from back pain. They are often less physically active. And if they sustain a back injury, smokers more sedentary ways often slow recovery.  Your chiropractic has probably mentioned to you that inadequate exercise can lead to back pain.

Back Pain Can Start Young

Surprisingly, the damage to the spine from smoking is not limited to adults.  A Canadian study showed adolescent smokers are more likely to complain of back soreness.  The study also revealed “a history of low back pain is predictive of future problems.  As such, prevention of back pain in youth may contribute to prevention of back pain in youth may contribute to prevention of disability from back pain in adulthood”. (3).

Tips for Quitting Smoking

Once you quit smoking, the good news is your back pain may decrease.  Proper blood flow returns and nerves then get healthier.

The American Cancer Society offers some suggestions on how to quit smoking.  You should decide on a Quit Day and mark it on your calendar for the following month. ( If you set the date too far in the future, you may lose motivation).  Create a quit smoking plan.  Decide how you’ll quit.  Will you use nicotine substitutes?  Join a stop-smoking group? Or employ a combination of strategies.

Once your quit day arrives…

  • Stay active. Engage in exercise or hobbies to distract your mind from smoking.
  • Avoid situations where you’re most likely to smoke.
  • Don’t drink alcohol. Instead, drink plenty of water and juice.
  • Change your routine. Take a different route home, eat different foods, or drink tea rather than coffee.




(1) Tobacco:Behind the Smoke- Health Canada

(2) Longitudinal study of medical students graduates 1948-1964- John Hopkins University/ American College of Orthopaedic Surgeons

(3) Smoking: A Risk Factor for Development of Low Back Pain in Adolescents- Spine: 1 December 1999-Volume 24-Issue 23-p 2492

American Cancer Society.


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