As if lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and emphysema weren’t enough, researchers now say smoking may be to blame for some common aches and pains, too. A new study shows smokers are more likely to complain about pain in their back, neck, arms, and legs than non-smokers. The report, published in the Annals of Rheumatological Diseases, showed smokers and ex-smokers are at higher risk for aches and pains -especially those that lead to chronic disabilities and interfere with daily activities.
Researchers surveyed nearly 13,000 adults across Great Britain and found the percentage of people who reported pain in the past year was consistently higher among smokers and ex-smokers for all the parts of the body examined by the study. Smokers and ex-smokers were at especially high risk for pain that prevented them from performing daily tasks.
Norwegian researchers reported that smokers and former smokers are more sensitive to pain than non-smokers. Their study of more than 10,000 people showed that smokers had the lowest tolerance to pain, followed by former smokers. Men and women who had never smoked had the highest pain tolerance. “These results suggest that nicotine consumption leads to a long-term hyperalgesic effect,” said Dr. Aslak Johansen of the University Hospital of North Norway, Tromsø.
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 which acts as a temporary analgesic. This is what makes smoking so addictive. But this affect is only temporary. That same tobacco also impairs the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to bones and tissues. Nicotine greatly reduces the efficiency with which your heart and lungs work to deliver oxygen to your body. It also slows healing, reduces your skin’s elasticity, and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. When all of these factors combine, they not only weaken your health, but they can also intensify feelings of chronic pain.
To work efficiently, your muscles and joints need a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood. Smoking not only tightens your arteries, it decreases the rate at which oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged in your blood. In other words, when you smoke, your muscles don’t just get less blood, they get lower quality blood. 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 pain and osteoporosis. Smoking is also clearly associated with making tendon and ligament brittle often resulting in injuries like rotator cuff tears. Think about that: smoking makes people tear their shoulder muscles more. That’s hardly the kind of vulnerability people expect from smoking. Researchers also link smoking with fatigue and slower healing, factors that make painful conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis and other chronic pain issues worse.
This news is important because not only 1 in 5 Americans smoke cigarettes, but at least 1 in 10 nonsmokers are exposed to secondhand smoke at home. This means smoking chronically impacts and exposes a large population to nicotine and cigarette smoke. This smoke contains thousands of compounds, many of them producing significant physiologic effects.
Giving up smoking isn’t easy, but it can help you get part of your life back from chronic pain. It can also prevent those you love from feeling the effects of second hand smoke and putting them at higher risk for health issues and chronic pain. Talk to your doctor about potential medications and/or counseling options to help you quit. Not only can quitting decrease your chronic pain, it will increase your health and quality of life.