Smoking is an important risk factor for degenerative disc disease (DDD). The term “degenerative disc disease” has been criticized by some people because all discs will naturally degenerate over time. This is a normal part of the aging process.
However, in some people, the intervertebral disc degenerates faster, causing the intervertebral disc to lose fluid, become less flexible, and weaken the ability to protect and support the vertebrae. The results may vary because some people have mild symptoms, while others suffer from chronic and debilitating pain.
More research is ongoing to study the relationship between smoking and DDD, but there is evidence that quitting smoking now may reduce the risk of developing or exacerbating DDD.
Smoking and disc degeneration
Although genetic predisposition is the primary risk factor for DDD, smoking is another, whether it is the lumbar disc (lower back) or the cervical disc (neck).
Studies have shown that people who smoke have a greater risk of DDD, and that smoking can exacerbate pre-existing disc degeneration.
Nicotine deprives the cells of the intervertebral disc of important nutrients. When you smoke, you also introduce carbon monoxide into the bloodstream and then into the body tissues. Toxins can inhibit the ability of the intervertebral discs to absorb required nutrients from the blood, including calcium, resulting in damage to the structure of the vertebrae.
This process is what degrades the discs; they dehydrate prematurely and become less flexible. As the intervertebral disc becomes more malnourished, there is a greater risk of intervertebral disc rupture, which occurs when the contents of the intervertebral disc (a “jelly-like” substance) spill from its outer layer.
The contents can irritate the nerves, causing pain, numbness, and in some cases, nerve damage in the legs or arms.
Symptoms of DDD
Some symptoms of degenerative disc disease are:
- Neck and/or lower back pain
- Pain extends to arms and hands
- Hip and thigh pain
- Pain worsens when standing, lifting, sitting, or bending over
- Weak legs
- Foot drop (when you cannot lift the front part of the foot)
DDD affects everyone differently. People experience varying degrees of pain; some people don’t have many obvious symptoms at all.
Other risks of disc damage
There are other risks associated with smoking that can lead to intervertebral disc damage. They include:
- Cough: More common among smokers, coughing also increases the risk of back pain. Sudden movements of the body when coughing will continue to increase the pressure between the intervertebral discs. This can strain the intervertebral disc and spine, which increases the risk of disc bulging and rupture (especially in the spine that has been weakened by smoking-related toxins).
- Inactivity: On average, smokers are less physically active than non-smokers. Generally speaking, inactivity causes higher frequency of back pain.
Unfortunately, the pain associated with DDD can make an active lifestyle more difficult to enjoy.
Mental health impact
Degenerative disc disease can also affect your mental health. Back pain is related to increased anxiety and depression.
When your body feels pain, the “pain circuit” of your brain is triggered. Over time, pain triggers brain circuits that process emotions.
When you are in chronic pain, it may be difficult to manage your emotions.
In addition, the limited exercise that disrupts your daily life is related to psychological distress. This pain affects your brain’s chemical reactions, limiting the production of dopamine (the hormone that releases your body’s pleasure), which can make you feel more stressed.
Treatment of DDD
The treatment of DDD ranges from lifestyle changes to major surgery. It is very important that your doctor conduct an evaluation to determine the treatment that is right for you.
A combination of physical therapy and medication can help relieve the pain associated with degenerative disc disease. Depending on the severity of the pain, your doctor may recommend any of the following medicines:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These over-the-counter and prescription drugs help relieve inflammation caused by DDD. If your pain is severe, your doctor may temporarily prescribe a stronger pain reliever.
- Muscle relaxants: Spinal pain may cause muscle cramps; your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant for a short period of time to relieve the pain caused by the cramps.
- Corticosteroids: These will be prescribed by your doctor to help reduce inflammation caused by disc damage.
If you are overweight, your doctor may also recommend that you lose weight. Being overweight, especially in the front of the body, can pull on the spine and further stimulate spinal injury.
Physical therapy is another common treatment for spinal injuries. You will learn a series of stretching exercises to relieve back tension and exercise the surrounding muscles such as the abdomen, thighs and buttocks.
Studies have shown that people who smoke may experience higher pain sensitivity. With treatment, quitting smoking may improve the painful symptoms associated with DDD.
Depending on the severity of your condition, if non-surgical treatment is ineffective, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment, such as artificial disc replacement or spinal fusion.
Artificial implants can be used to replace damaged lumbar discs, but this is usually reserved for patients who have lost function due to injury. On the other hand, spinal fusion is when the surgeon fuses the damaged disc with the adjacent disc to prevent pain when you move.
It is recommended to quit smoking before surgery. Smoking greatly increases the risk of surgical complications-cigarette smoke causes lower oxygen levels in the body, which can damage the heart, lungs, and immune system, making it harder to recover.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that even quitting smoking 4 weeks before surgery can improve the body’s ability to recover.
Mental health treatment
There are a variety of mental health treatments that can help you cope with pain, relieve the anxiety and stress that cause pain, and even change your perception of pain. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has been shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A study pointed out that after participating in MBSR for 4 weeks, the depression symptoms of patients with back pain improved significantly.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another type of treatment that may be effective. Through CBT, the therapist will help you regulate your emotions and find a healthy coping mechanism.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another treatment that can help you reduce the harmful effects of mental stress on your body. PMR is something you can practice on your own. You focus on one part of your body at a time, tighten your muscles, and then slowly relax. This exercise increases the awareness of the tension that the muscles endure and encourages the release of this tension.
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If you are concerned about your spine health, please consult your doctor. They can recommend the best treatment to solve your pain. In addition, your doctor can help you find the best way to quit smoking. Many people use a combination of counseling, support groups, and nicotine replacement therapy. Quitting smoking can prevent further damage to your health.