Smoking Accelerates Multiple Sclerosis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Smoking is never a good idea for anyone – especially people in chronic pain -- but according to a new study it is particularly bad for multiple sclerosis patients, both before and after diagnosis.

Cigarette smoking is already a known risk factor for developing multiple sclerosis (MS), but in a first of its kind study published in JAMA Neurology, Swedish researchers found that continuing to smoke after diagnosis significantly accelerates progression of the disease.

MS is a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain. Symptoms begin with a series of irregular relapses, and after about 20 years MS worsens into a secondary progressive (SP) stage of the disease.

In a study of over 700 MS patients who continued to smoke after their diagnosis, researchers found that each additional year of smoking accelerated the time to SP conversion by 4.7 percent.  

Looking at it another way, the study found that patients who continued to smoke converted to SP faster (at an average age of 48) than those who quit smoking (at age 56).

“This study demonstrates that smoking after MS diagnosis has a negative impact on the progression of the disease, whereas reduced smoking may improve patient quality of life, with more years before the development of SP disease,” said lead author Jan Hillert, MD, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska University Hospital Solna in Stockholm.

“Evidence clearly supports advising patients with MS who smoke to quit. Health care services for patients with MS should be organized to support such a lifestyle change.”

Getting MS patients to quit is important not only for patients, but for society as a whole because of the high cost of treating MS. Disease modifying drugs such as fingolimod and natalizumab, cost about $30,000 per year and are not always effective.

“This study adds to the important research demonstrating that smoking is an important modifiable risk factor in MS. Most importantly, it provides the first evidence, to our knowledge, that quitting smoking appears to delay onset of secondary progressive MS and provide protective benefit,”  said Myla Goldman, MD, of the University of Virginia, and Olaf Stüve, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in an accompanying editorial in JAMA Neurology.

Previous studies have found that smoking increases your chances of having several types of chronic pain conditions.

A study of over 6,000 Kentucky women found that those who smoked had a greater chance of having fibromyalgia, sciatica, chronic neck pain, chronic back pain and joint pain than non-smokers. Women in the study who smoked daily more than doubled their odds of having chronic pain.

A large study in Norway found that smokers and former smokers were more sensitive to pain than non-smokers. Smokers had the lowest tolerance to pain, while men and women who had never smoked had the highest pain tolerance.