Smoking Linked to Chronic Back Pain

New research has found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain. More importantly, kicking the habit may help prevent the condition from developing.

Bogdan Petre, lead author of the study and a technical scientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, concluded, “Smoking affects the brain. We found that it affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain.”

Cigarette being put out in ashtray

The research, which was published online in the Human Brain Mapping journal, provides the first evidence to link smoking and chronic pain with an area of the brain associated with addiction and reward.

In the study, researchers recruited 160 adults with newly reported cases of back pain. Over the subsequent 12 months, the participants underwent MRI brain scans and were asked to rate the intensity of their back pain. Researchers also provided them with a questionnaire asking about smoking and other health-related issues. Two control groups — one with 35 healthy participants and one with 32 participants who had long-term chronic back pain — were monitored with the same MRIs and questionnaire.

The MRIs enabled the researchers to analyze activity in two areas of the brain involved in addictive behavior and motivated learning. They concluded this neural circuitry is crucial in developing chronic pain. The more these areas of the brain communicate, the greater the odds of developing chronic pain. According to a statement, “By showing how a part of the brain involved in motivated learning allows tobacco addiction to interface with pain chronification, the findings hint at a potentially more general link between addiction and pain.”

Petre adds: “That circuit was very strong and active in the brains of smokers. But we saw a dramatic drop in this circuit’s activity in smokers who — of their own will — quit smoking during the study, so when they stopped smoking, their vulnerably to chronic pain also decreased.”

Importantly, while anti-inflammatory drugs were shown to help study participants manage their pain, they did not alter the activity of the brain circuitry.

In addition to kicking the nicotine habit, another recent study conducted in Australia and published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that adopting the habit of standing at work for half-hour increments may help relieve back pain without adversely affecting productivity. Researchers had office workers alternate between sitting and standing every half hour for a week. The participants reported they felt less fatigued and experienced less back and lower-leg pain than when they stayed seated all day.

Study leader Alica A. Thorp, a research fellow at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, told Reuters Health, “Our results confirm what we expected: that introducing regular breaks across the workday leads to improvements in fatigue and musculoskeletal symptoms compared to sitting all day. While we didn’t see a statistically significant improvement in productivity, the finding that intermittent standing across the workday did not adversely affect worker’s productivity is important. Given that we observed a significant reduction in fatigue levels over five consecutive days, it is possible that over a longer period of time, this would have translated into a significant improvement in productivity. The message for sedentary workers should be to alternate regularly between sitting and standing across the workday for health.”

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