Why Smoking is a Pain in the Neck

By Pat Anson, Editor

Need another reason to stop smoking? What if you knew it was causing that pain in your neck?

That’s the conclusion of a new study being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association of Academic Physiatrists. In a study of 182 patients who were given CT scans,  researchers found that smokers were more likely to have cervical degenerative disc disease.

“This is another example of the detrimental effects of smoking. Tobacco abuse is associated with a variety of diseases and death, and there are lifestyle factors associated with chronic neck pain,” says lead investigator Mitchel Leavitt, MD, resident physician at Emory University’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

“Pain and spine clinics are filled with patients who suffer chronic neck and back pain, and this study provides the physician with more ammunition to use when educating them about their need to quit smoking.”

The cervical spine is located in the neck and is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between these bones are cervical discs that absorb shock to the spine. Through the normal aging process, these discs slowly degenerate, which means they become dehydrated and shrink.

In some cases, the drying of the disc may cause cracks and tears, through which some of the jelly-like central portion of the disc may spill out and irritate local nerves. That can result in pain in the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

It isn’t only wear and tear that can damage these discs. Some unhealthy habits, such as smoking, can add to cervical disc degeneration.

“Smoking is not healthy for a person’s intervertebral discs given the risk of developing microvascular disease – a disease of the small blood vessels – due to nicotine abuse,” says Leavitt. “Intervertebral discs receive their nourishment from the microvasculature that line the endplates on either side of each disc; when these blood vessels are damaged, the discs do not receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

While smoking has been associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine, this was one of the first studies to make the association with the cervical spine.  The patients evaluated by Leavitt and his colleagues were mostly female (57 percent), and about a third were smokers. A radiologist and a physiatrist – a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation – reviewed their CT scans for signs of cervical degenerative disc disease. The amount of damage was rated on a scale of zero to 15.

Current smokers were found to have more cervical degenerative disc disease and were given a "damage score" that was about one point higher, on average. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that aging was associated with worsening cervical degenerative disc disease, but diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and high BMI were not.

Leavitt believes more research is needed on other lifestyle factors, such as high fat diets, alcohol use and obesity to see how they relate to chronic back and neck pain.

“Virtually everyone knows that moderate exercise somewhere around four to five times per week is beneficial, plus other lifestyle factors like avoidance of smoking and a proper diet are equally important. However, these topics are usually geared towards heart health, lowering blood pressure, managing diabetes, or controlling other medical conditions, and not specific to the spine,” Leavitt said. “It is one thing to live to the age of 95, and it is another to live to 95 while retaining one's mobility and being free of pain. Lifestyle medicine will likely play a large role in the future of healthcare, and having plenty of data to support lifestyle management is critical.”

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.

In a recent study published in JAMA Neurology, Swedish researchers reported that continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis significantly accelerates progression of the disease.