If you suffer from chronic pain, you may try to find some relief by lighting up a cigarette. While nicotine may produce a short-term respite from your discomfort, you should know that, over the long-term, smoking is probably making your pain symptoms worse. In addition to the elevated health risks of lung cancer and heart disease, smoking is also a major risk factor for back and joint pain. Although less than one-fifth of the U.S. population are smokers, smokers make up half of patients with severe pain conditions.
How Smoking Damages Your Body
To understand how smoking harms your body and exacerbates pain, you must first know how it affects your physiology. Nicotine interacts with your brain and increases production of dopamine, which is a key component of the “pleasure” response. This enjoyable feeling contributes to nicotine addiction, but there are much more deleterious effects as well.
Smoking inhibits the delivery of oxygen which can cause tissue damage. For areas of your body like the discs in your spine that are extremely sensitive to oxygen deprivation, this can severely damage them leading to chronic pain symptoms. Tobacco use also increases inflammation, making damaged tissue more resistant to healing and more painful.
In addition to damaging tissue and organs, smoking also diminishes your body’s ability to heal. The cocktail of toxic chemicals that include nicotine, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide interfere in the natural healing process, making it more difficult to recover naturally from injuries and underlying physiological conditions that are causing your chronic pain.
Smoking Intensifies Pain
Smoking may strengthen feelings of pain and discomfort in a number of ways. First of all, smoking depresses the action of lungs and heart which in turn diminishes the amount of oxygen in your blood. Nicotine also acts as a vasoconstrictor, i.e. tightens blood vessels, making it even more difficult to transport oxygen and nutrients to injured or damaged tissue. Lack of oxygen prevents this damaged tissue from recovering, which lengthens periods of pain following an injury.
There have been a number of studies showing that there is a strong link between smoking and elevated pain sensitivity. A 2013 Norwegian study of 10,000 subjects revealed that smokers had the lowest pain tolerance. Another study of 5,300 chronic pain patients found that smokers felt their pain symptoms more intensely than those who had quit or had never smoked.
Tobacco use also produces secondary effects that intensify pain. One of the most overlooked effects of smoking is its ability to cause insomnia. Because nicotine is a powerful stimulant it can prevent smokers from sleeping, especially if used later in the day. Many studies suggest that sleep deprivation worsens pain symptoms.
Furthermore, sleep deprivation and smoking also contribute to emotional depression. Chronic pain sufferers are prone to depression, but these other conditions may worsen any emotional disturbances. Physicians have long recognized that there is a strong causal relationship between depression and some forms of chronic pain like migraine headaches or back pain.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.