Back pain can can be felt anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips, although pain in the lower back is most common. The pain can vary from mild to moderate depending on what is causing the condition. For most people, poor posture and lifting something awkwardly is the source of the discomfort, a study demonstrates the extent to which another activity can aggravate it.
Smokers are three times more likely to develop chronic back pain, according to a study published in the medical journal, Human Brain Mapping.
This is not the first study to link smoking to chronic pain. But according to the research team, led by Bogdan Petre of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern, it is the first study to suggest that smoking interferes with a brain circuit associated with pain, making smokers more prone to chronic back pain.
The study suggests that smokers could reduce their risk of developing chronic back pain by quitting the habit.
As reported by the NHS, the research involved observing 68 people with sub-acute back pain (back pain lasting for four to 12 weeks with no back pain in the previous year) over one year.
The participants completed repeated questionnaires about their level of back pain and had four functional MRI brain scans over the course of the year.
In addition to increasing the risk three-fold, they were also more likely to have increased activity in the brain pathways implicated in addiction (between the nucleus accumbens and the medial prefrontal cortex).
The researchers speculate this increased activity may also increase the risk of chronic pain developing. This increase in activity reduced in a small number of people who stopped smoking.
As this was an observational study, it cannot prove that the increased brain pathway activity or smoking caused the back pain to become chronic, but it does indicate they may be linked in some way.
Commenting on their findings, the researchers said: “We conclude that smoking increases risk of transitioning to chronic back pain, an effect mediated by corticostriatal circuitry involved in addictive behaviour and motivated learning.”
Tae M. Shin, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Centre, provided a more direct link between smoking and back pain.
As she explained, nicotine restricts blood flow to the disks that cushion your vertebrae and increases the rate of degeneration. This loss of cushioning can cause back pain.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, cigarette smoking also reduces calcium absorption and prevents new bone growth, leaving smokers with an increased risk for osteoporosis (brittle, fragile bones) and slower healing after bone fractures, which can cause back pain.
According to the NHS, most back pain is what’s known as “non-specific” (there’s no obvious cause) or “mechanical” (the pain originates from the joints, bones or soft tissues in and around the spine).
This type of back pain:
- Tends to get better or worse depending on your position – for example, it may feel better when sitting or lying down
- Typically feels worse when moving – but it’s not a good idea to avoid moving your back completely, as this can make things worse
- Can develop suddenly or gradually
- Might sometimes be the result of poor posture or lifting something awkwardly, but often occurs for no apparent reason
- May be due to a minor injury such as sprain (pulled ligament) or strain (pulled muscle)
- Can be associated with feeling stressed or run down
- Will usually start to get better within a few weeks
“Sometimes, damage to parts of your spine can be the cause of back pain,” said Bupa.
Examples of this are:
- A slipped (herniated) disc – when a disc bulges and puts pressure on your spinal nerves
- A fracture – a crack or break in one of the bones in your back, perhaps due to osteoporosis
- Inflammatory low back pain – caused by a condition such as ankylosing spondylitis. In this condition your immune system causes inflammation in the spinal joints and ligaments
“Back pain can also be caused by a serious condition such as an infection or cancer, but this is very uncommon,” added the health body.