neck-pain-solved-by-quitting-smokingThe fact that smoking is an unhealthy habit is common knowledge. There are plenty of reasons to avoid or drop this habit, but recent research has highlighted an interesting addition to the list of reasons to stay away from cigarettes. Smoking was found to be strongly associated with degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine in a study shared by the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California.

The Cervical Spine

There are cervical discs located between each vertebrae of the cervical spine. They operate as shock absorbers in the neck and generally degenerate during the aging process. If they become dehydrated, they will get smaller, which can lead to chronic neck pain that is extremely difficult to treat. Another result from these discs drying out is that they will develop cracks and tears that can cause the soft inside of the disc to come spilling out. This causes the nerves to be irritated, ending in pain in the shoulders, arms, fingers, and hands.

How Smoking Affects Neck Pain

Other ways that these discs can become damaged aside from the standard wear and tear is from unhealthy habits like smoking, which increases the degeneration of these discs. According to Mitchel Leavitt, MD, the reason that smoking negatively affects the intervertebral discs is because of the heightened risk of developing microvascular disease (a disease of the small blood vessels) from the nicotine exposure. Here’s where the problem lies. The intervertebral discs are nourished from the microvasculature that lines the endplates on either side of the disc. When blood vessels are damaged from smoking, the discs can’t get the nutrients that they need, which accelerates the degenerative process.

Studies have been done to confirm that smoking negatively affects the lumbar spine but none have confirmed whether it causes issues specifically with the cervical spine as well. In order to find if this is the case, Dr. Leavitt and his team examined the CT scans of 182 patients who had them done for different reasons.

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Dr. Leavitt observed that healthy habits improved life quality and quantity along with helping keep diseases at bay and positively affecting the health of the spine. This study shows how positive lifestyle choices impact cervical health, and previous studies prove blood vessel health can affect the likelihood of a person having chronic back pain or not.

A majority of the patients that they studied were female (57%) and some were smokers (34%). A specially trained radiologist and a physiatrist examined the CT scans and recorded what they found regarding the severity of cervical degenerative disc disease.

The discs were rated as follows:

  • Normal – no loss of disc height
  • Mild – 1 – 33% loss of disc height
  • Moderate – 34 – 66% loss of disc height
  • Severe – more than 66% loss of disc height

The scores of zero to three were then given to each disc and a cumulative cervical degenerative disc disease score was given for the whole cervical spine ranging from zero to fifteen.

Some other details that were considered were whether the patient smoked now or many years ago, the number of packs they smoked at the time, and how many years they smoked. Other details they recorded were BMI, age, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. The results brought some interesting facts to light.

Individuals who were smoking currently scored one point higher on average for worsening cervical disc degeneration, highlighting the harmful side effects of smoking. Tobacco has been proven over and over to lead to multiple diseases and even death.

The benefit of studies like this is that it provides more motivation for those who smoke to quit. Dr. Leavitt hopes people who learn about this study will see the value of making positive lifestyle adjustments so they can live a longer, healthier life with little or no pain.

More Surprising Studies

A study was conducted in Kentucky of more than 6,000 women who were smokers. The research provided clear evidence that they were more likely to develop sciatica, fibromyalgia, chronic neck pain, joint pain, and chronic back pain. The individuals who smoked every day were twice as likely to have some kind of chronic pain.

A study that was done in Norway looked at the pain levels of those where were smokers and former smokers and compared them to non-smokers. It turned out that the smoker’s pain tolerance was lower than those who never smoked. In fact, the non-smokers had a very high pain tolerance. JAMA also shared from this study and showed that those with multiple sclerosis who continued smoking after their diagnosis experienced a faster progression in their disease than those that did not smoke.

Neck Pain and Correct Spinal Alignment

There are other causes of neck pain aside from smoking. If there are problems with the neck and they are not attended to in a timely manner, they can lead to spinal arthritis and chronic neck pain. Other symptoms that could arise from issues with the upper cervical spine are headaches, dizziness, and numbness. In order to improve any chronic neck pain issues you are having, it is strongly recommended that you quit nicotine habits immediately. Another step toward recovery from your pain would be to visit us here at Hunter Spinal Care in Calgary, Alberta.

Using a specialized technique, we will examine your neck in order to locate any issues with your alignment. We use minimal force to encourage the neck bones’ placement to return to their original position. This allows the body to begin healing from the damage caused by the misalignment. While this does not restore a disc that has degenerated, it can slow further degeneration by properly aligning the neck. Many of our patients experience positive results after only a few visits.


To schedule a consultation with Vibe Health & Spine, call our Calgary office at (403) 266-2283. You can also click the button below.

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