Smoking Worsens Degenerative Disc Disease In Your Cervical Spine

Category: Spine Pain | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: February 22, 2016

smoking and back pain

You’ve probably heard that smoking is bad for you ever since you took your first health class in grade school, and new research is only adding to the list of reasons why you shouldn’t light up. According to findings presented at the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting, smoking has been linked to worsening degenerative disc disease in the cervical area of the spine.

The Study

For those of you unfamiliar with the areas of your spine, the cervical section is located in the upper portion or your spine, just below the neck. This area and the rest of your spine is comprised of vertebrae separated by discs that absorb shock and facilitate movement.  As we’ve explained before, your spinal discs slowly degenerate as we age. If the degeneration becomes excessive, the person may begin to experience pain or discomfort in their spine.

But time alone isn’t the only reason our spinal discs degenerate. Smoking, for example, inhibits healthy blood flow in the area.

“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,” said Dr. Mitchel 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 to no receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

Cervical Spine Degeneration

Previous studies have shown that smoking has been associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine (near the base of the spine), but no study has been able to make the same association with the cervical spine, until now. For their research, Dr. Leavitt and colleagues examined the CT scans of 182 patients who were scanned for various reasons. Cervical spine degeneration was graded by looking at each disc and classifying it as either normal (no disc degeneration – a 0 score) mild (1 to 33 percent loss of disc height – a 1 score) moderate (34 to 66 percent loss of disc height – a 2 score) or severe (greater than 66 percent loss in disc height – a 3 score). An examination of five discs gave each patient a cumulative score between 0 and 15. They also examined health assessments to determine if patients were smokers.

After looking at the data, researchers uncovered that current smokers were found to have an average of one more point of spine degeneration than non-smokers.

“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,” said Dr. Leavitt. “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.”

So if you want to have a healthy spine well into your golden years, don’t speed up cervical spine degeneration by smoking cigarettes!

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