Many people realize the damage that smoking can do to their lungs, with those who smoke being 15 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer or die from this disease than a non-smoker. But what is lesser known is the negative impact that cigarettes can have on the musculoskeletal system, giving you just one more reason to quit the habit.
Smoking’s Impact on the Musculoskeletal System
How does smoking hurt our muscles, bones, and other soft tissues? The answer lies, in part, in the way that it affects the circulatory system.
“Generally, tobacco and the components within tobacco smoke damage the small arteries in the body first,” explains Will Evans, DC, PhD, an American Chiropractic Association (ACA) member who is the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi’s College of Nursing and Health Professions and immediate past-chair of the American Public Health Association’s Chiropractic Healthcare Section. “This is why it is so detrimental to the heart’s arteries. As it turns out, the spine’s smaller blood vessels are vulnerable to this damage as well, especially those that supply the endplates of the vertebra and tissue surrounding the disc.”
This is why smoking and chronic pain in the spine often go hand in hand. A 2016 study of 34,525 American adults found that as exposure to smoking increased, so too did back pain. Specifically, while 23.5% of people who had never smoked reported having pain in their back, the number of current smokers experiencing back pain was 36.9%—an increase of 13.4%. Even former smokers had an elevated risk of back pain at 33.1%.
Smoking’s damage to the blood vessels and their surrounding areas is also why a tobacco user is more prone to problems after spinal surgery. In fact, many spine orthopedists won’t operate on someone until they quit smoking as “the vast majority of complications and post-surgical infections are in tobacco users,” says Dr. Evans.
Smoking can also worsen inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatic diseases that affect the joints. Quitting is even one of the main lifestyle recommendations for people with neck pain, tension headaches, osteoarthritis in the knee and hip, and fibromyalgia according to clinical practice guidelines for chiropractic patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain.
How Important Is Quitting Smoking for Musculoskeletal Health?
Many factors contribute to the health of the musculoskeletal system, some of which include getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet. So, how much does quitting smoking contribute to this health?
“For smokers, the single most important thing they can do for their health, regardless of whether we are talking about lung health, heart health, or musculoskeletal health, is to stop smoking,” says Dr. Evans. This includes not just smokers but also people engaged in any kind of tobacco use, such as chewing or vaping. “Make no mistake, tobacco users die sooner than non-users,” says Dr. Evans, “but with an added decade of disability or morbidity.” In other words, smoking doesn’t just lead to an earlier death but a poorer quality of life leading up to that untimely death, as well.
Quitting smoking is helpful for people with both acute and chronic back pain. Acute back pain is pain that occurs suddenly and is generally short-lived while chronic back pain tends to come about slowly over time but is long lasting. In the case of acute back pain, smoking can make it harder to heal and may even contribute to the pain turning chronic. In short, if someone smokes, “it is complicating their ability to get well and stay well,” says Dr. Evans.
If You’re Ready to Kick the Smoking Habit
Quitting smoking isn’t easy. This is evidenced by research that reports that out of the 30% to 50% of smokers in the U.S. who will try to kick the habit this year, only 7.5% will succeed. But this same research also stresses that “the earlier a smoker quits, the better.” Therefore, if you’re ready to take the next step and stop smoking for good, numerous resources can help.
One option is to call the Quitline at 1-800-QuitNOW. The Quitline is a joint effort led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute and aims to connect smokers with counselors, local smoking cessation programs, and even free medication to help them quit.
Other resources suggested by Dr. Evans include:
- Nicotine Anonymous. This nonprofit organization offers a 12-step program designed to help people quit all forms of tobacco and nicotine by attending local meetings with others who have the same goal. This provides support while quitting, also enabling you to learn from others who have been successful in stopping tobacco and nicotine use.
- American Cancer Society’s tips and tools. The American Cancer Society offers many valuable tips and tools for ceasing tobacco use. They include access to a “Guide to Quitting” which covers everything from making a plan to quit to dealing with the mental side of tobacco addiction, access to other smoking cessation resources, or even calling them directly at (800) 227-2345 to discuss your particular challenges and which resources may help most.
- American Heart Association’s quit smoking recommendations. Because smoking is harmful to the heart, the American Heart Association offers advice for quitting cigarettes as well—in addition to helping people quit a nicotine vaping habit. One of the recommendations includes following five steps for quitting, which involve setting a quit day, choosing how you’ll quit, and making a plan for your “Quit Day” and beyond.
- CDC’s quit smoking resources. CDC also provides helpful strategies for quitting smoking, like working with a quit-smoking counselor and talking with your healthcare provider to see if some type of medication can help. Other suggestions offered by the CDC include signing up for a free texting program such as SmokefreeTXT or using a mobile app such as quitSTART to stay motivated and inspired, both of which are services offered by Smokefree.gov.
It’s also helpful to talk to your chiropractor about your desire to quit smoking. They can help identify your options, also serving as an ally in your fight to become smoke-free.
For more information on prevention and wellness, or to find a doctor of chiropractic near you, visit ACA’s consumer information website, www.HandsDownBetter.org.
Christina DeBusk is a freelance contributor to Hands Down Better.
Reviewed by the ACA Editorial Advisory Board. The information in this post is for educational purposes. It is not a replacement for treatment or consultation with a healthcare professional. If you have specific questions, contact your doctor of chiropractic. To find an ACA chiropractor near you, click here.