How Sodas and Smoking Worsen Disability

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Most doctors will tell you that smoking and drinking sweetened beverages like soda every day will lead to poor health. They can also worsen your risk of disability if you have rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, according to new studies.

Researchers in Germany wanted to know how diet can affect the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain.  

They surveyed 135 MS patients to see how close their diet was to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet – which limits foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar – and recommends whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish, nuts and legumes.

Researchers did not find a link between what the participants ate and their level of disability, but there was a strong association with what they drank.

"While we did not find a link with overall diet, interestingly, we did find a link with those who drank sodas, flavored juices and sweetened teas and coffees," said study author Elisa Meier-Gerdingh, MD, of St. Josef Hospital in Bochum, Germany.

MS patients who consumed the largest amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages – averaging about 290 additional calories per day -- were five times more likely to have severe disability than people who rarely drank sweetened beverages.

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"While these results need to be confirmed by larger studies that follow people over a long period of time, and the results do not show that soda and sugar-sweetened beverages cause more severe disability, we do know that sodas have no nutritional value and people with MS may want to consider reducing or eliminating them from their diet," said Meier-Gerdingh, who will present her findings at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Philadelphia in May.

Smoking Worsens Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Previous studies have also found that smoking increases your chances of having MS and several other chronic pain conditions.

A new study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston demonstrated for the first time that women who stop smoking can reduce their risk of developing the most severe form of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But it takes time to have a beneficial effect.

"Ours is the first study to show that a behavior change can reduce risk for seropositive RA. Risk isn't just about genes and bad luck--there's a modifiable environmental component to the onset of this disease and a chance for some people to reduce their risk or even prevent RA," said corresponding author Jeffrey Sparks, MD, of the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at the Brigham.

Sparks and colleagues analyzed data from the Nurses' Health Study, which tracked the long-term health of registered nurses from across the U.S.  Brigham researchers identified over 1,500 nurses who developed RA, but they were most interested in those with "seropositive" RA as opposed to "seronegative" RA. Patients with seropositive RA generally have more severe joint deformities and disability.

For seropositive RA, the risk of disability began to go down about five years after women quit smoking and continued to decrease the longer they stayed non-smokers. Participants who quit for good reduced their risk of seropositive RA by 37 percent after 30 years. The team did not find any association between seronegative RA and smoking.

"One of the lessons here is that it takes sustained smoking cessation to reap the full benefit," said Sparks, who published his findings in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

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"Whereas for other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, quitting smoking can provide a more immediate effect, here we're seeing benefits decades later for those who quit smoking permanently."

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing pain, inflammation and bone erosion. While the biological mechanisms that link smoking and the development of RA are unclear, Sparks believes that smoking may contribute to the formation of RA-related antibodies that increase inflammation.

In future studies, Brigham researchers want to extend their investigations to include men and to see if smoking cessation can prevent the formation of RA-related antibodies and stop progression of the disease.

Another Reason for Arthritis Patients to Quit Smoking

By Pat Anson, Editor

Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who quit smoking can significantly reduce their risk of an early death, according to a British study published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research.

University of Manchester researchers studied a database of over 5,600 rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients that included hospital admissions and death certificates. They found that the risk of death was almost two times higher in RA patients who smoked compared to those who never smoked.

The good news for smokers is that if they quit, the risk of death fell for each year they didn’t smoke. Former smokers have a risk similar to that of RA patients who had never smoked.

"This research provides important evidence that the risk of early death starts to decline in patients who stop smoking, and continues year on year,” said Deborah Symmons, Professor of Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Epidemiology at The University of Manchester.

“We hope that this research can be used by public health professionals and rheumatologists to help more people quit smoking and reduce premature deaths, particularly for newly diagnosed patients with rheumatoid arthritis."

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing swelling, inflammation and bone erosion. Many health experts believe the inflammation triggered by RA in the joints may cause inflammation throughout the body, including the heart’s coronary arteries.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 50 percent of premature deaths in people with rheumatoid arthritis result from cardiovascular disease. The heightened risk of heart disease applies to all forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, gout, lupus and psoriatic arthritis.

"Rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating and painful condition affecting over 400,000 people in the UK, it can begin at any age and is unpredictable - one day you can feel fine and the next day be confined to bed, unable to get up to dress, even go to the toilet unaided,” said Stephen Simpson, Director of Research and Programmes for Arthritis Research UK.

"As a charity, we are committed to preventing, transforming and curing arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases, and this research shows that cutting out smoking is one intervention which can help this condition from developing."

There is already plenty of evidence to show an association between smoking and increased risk of death in the general population, but the habit is especially risky for chronic pain sufferers. Studies have found that smoking increases your chances of having several types of chronic pain conditions, such as degenerative disc disease.

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.

A recent study in Sweden published in JAMA Neurology found that smoking after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis significantly accelerates progression of the disease.

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.

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.

Smoking Linked to Longer Opioid Use

By Pat Anson, Editor

About one in five patients who are prescribed an opioid pain medication for the first time are still taking painkillers 90 days later, according to a small new study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Smokers and former smokers who were found to have the highest risk of using painkillers long-term.

Researchers at the Mayor Clinic studied a health database of residents in Olmsted County, Minnesota and identified 293 patients who were prescribed opioids in 2009. Nearly two-thirds were women who received their first opioid prescription after surgery, or some type of musculoskeletal pain or injury.

Most of the patients only needed one or two prescriptions and stopped taking pain medication. But 61 of them (21%) progressed to an “episodic” prescribing pattern in which they were still using opioids 90 days later. Nineteen patients (6%) were classified as “long term” users – which was defined as someone who had ten or more opioid prescriptions or at least 120 days of supply.

Women, Caucasians, people with a high school education or less, and patients with a history of depression or substance abuse had higher risks of long-term use.

But it was current or past smokers who stood out – nearly 74% of long-term opioid users had a history with tobacco. Nicotine is known to activate a group of nerve receptors in the brain, in a way very similar to how opioids and chronic pain activate them.

Researchers say the identification of potential risk factors like tobacco is an important tool for physicians, who should be careful about prescribing painkillers to patients with such histories.

“Before initiating a new opioid prescription, patients should be screened for past or current tobacco use and past or current substance abuse. This would allow the clinician to assess the risk of longer-term prescribing and would provide the opportunity to counsel the patient about these potential risk factors before actually receiving the initial prescription,” said lead author W. Michael Hooten, MD, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist.

"From a patient perspective, it is important to recognize the potential risks associated with these medications. I encourage use of alternative methods to manage pain, including non-opioid analgesics or other non-medication approaches. That reduces or even eliminates the risk of these medications transitioning to another problem that was never intended."

Not only does smoking raise the risk of longer opioid use, previous studies have shown it also increases your chances of having chronic pain.

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, while occasional smokers showed a 68% percent higher risk, and former smokers showed a 20% greater risk.

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.

Depression and Obesity Raise Risk of Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Depression, obesity, smoking, and alcohol use significantly raise the risk of having low back pain, according to a large new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“The results were pretty surprising to us. We kind of expected to find a significant difference but not to that extent,” said lead study author and orthopedic surgeon Scott Shemory, MD.

Shemory and his colleagues at Summa Health and the Crystal Clinic Orthopedic Center in Akron, Ohio reviewed the health records of over 26 million patients from 13 health care systems in the U.S. Of those 26 million patients, 1.2 million were diagnosed with lower back pain.

Researchers then analyzed the records to see if the patients with low back pain had any of the four modifiable risk factors: obesity, depressive disorders, alcohol and tobacco use.

  • 19.3% of low back pain patients were depressed
  • 16.75% were obese with a body mass index (BMI) over 30
  • 16.53% were nicotine dependent.
  • 14.66% abused alcohol

The study did not address the “chicken and egg question” of which came first. Do depression and obesity cause low back pain, or does low back pain lead to depression, obesity and other risk factors?

“With our study there was no way to determine the cause and the effect or which came first because there was so much overlap,” Shemory told Pain News Network.

“Especially with alcohol abuse and depressive disorders. Anybody who’s got low back pain for years and years, I don’t think it would be surprising that they would have a higher chance of depression or alcohol abuse.”

Regardless of which came first, Shemory says patients should take steps to improve their health by eliminating risk factors that they can control.

“If a patient has any of these risk factors and has low back pain that doesn’t have a neurogenic cause, like a pinched nerve or something like that, I would be counseling them on trying to control these risk factors, not just for their general health but their back pain and livelihood as well,” he said.

According to the National Instituteof Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. One large survey found that over a quarter of adults reported having low back pain during the past 3 months.