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Discovering if Smoking can Lead to Chronic Pain|smashed cigarette butt|woman breaking cigarette in half|cigarette and ash tray

Health & Wellness

Can Smoking Lead to Chronic Pain?

Most people know that smoking is bad for your health. The link between smoking and lung cancer has been promoted in public service announcements for decades now. Young athletes know that smoking will impair their performance, and adults know that the smell of cigarette smoke is almost impossible to get out of your skin, hair, and clothes.

Did you know, however, that even if you escape cancer, smoking can cause other health issues, including potentially contributing to chronic pain?

smashed cigarette butt

Smoking and Pain

Studies show that long-term smoking can contribute to and chronic widespread pain (CWP) in older adults. Compared to those who do not smoke, people who have smoked for a long time are at a much greater risk of widespread pain. 1

The subject of tobacco use and pain is something that is of interest to researchers, and it has been looked at from both sides. While there is evidence to show that people who smoke are at greater risk of developing conditions that lead to long-term pain, there is also evidence to suggest that some people choose to smoke because they are in pain. 2 That doesn't mean that the first hypothesis is incorrect, however—both of those theories can be true at the same time for different groups of people.

Pain Management and Smokers

Pain is complex and therefore affected by many factors. Nicotine is a pain-killer, but it works only in the short-term, and since there are so many other substances in cigarettes, people who choose to smoke to dull their pain could actually be making their pain worse and longer-lasting. 3

Smoking does not just damage the lungs and throat, it can impact everything—even lower back pain. This is because smoking causes changes in the neuroendocrine system which are thought to potentially make the pain worse in the long term.

In the short term, the response from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system causes a decrease in pain perception. In the long term, however, that response is reduced, potentially making the pain worse. 4 The link between smoking and pain is not as clear as “smoking causes pain,” but it does appear to make people feel pain more strongly.

woman breaking cigarette in half

Kicking the Habit

Quitting smoking is not easy. Even with smoking cessation aids, a lot of people struggle because there are both physical and mental components to the addiction. Social smokers want something to do in the "smoking area" or feel the need to do something with their hands. They smoke partly out of habit. For instance, when they're stressed, smoking is what they have become used to doing in order to reduce that feeling.

A lot of people who are trying to stop smoking will end up gaining weight because they want to keep their hands busy and may end up eating junk food instead. Using personal diffusers can offer a smoker a chance to kick the habit while keeping their hands busy. The essential oils found in these diffusers are also great for relieving stress or reducing some minor aches and pains, so they can offer the relief that smoking does for some people without the negative consequences.

The biological part of the addiction to nicotine does not take that long to beat. Most people find that their brain chemistry returns to normal after about three months, even if they were a smoker for a very long time. The challenge is getting through those first few months.

Nicotine patches and gum can help some people wean themselves off nicotine, and vaping low nicotine e-liquids is a popular way of reducing nicotine consumption over time as well. For those who are interested in the relationship between smoking and pain, and who feel that going cold-turkey may be too much for them, gradual nicotine withdrawal could help. The important thing is to not become dependent on the nicotine patches in the same way you previously depended on cigarettes.

cigarette and ash tray

Final Thoughts

If you are a smoker, remember that it's never too late to start taking care of yourself. If you stop smoking now, then your body will start to repair itself, and over time, your lungs will restore themselves to something close to those of non-smoker.

Your lung capacity can improve, and while any structural damage caused by something like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be long-lasting, your lung function will start to normalize over time. When you stop smoking, your body has a fighting chance to undo the damage. Your brain chemistry will also start to get back to normal, and you will be better able to cope with pain in healthy ways.

So, take charge of your life. If you’re a smoker, consider quitting, and find positive ways to cope with pain so that you can enjoy a long and healthy life.

Photo credits: fongbeerredhot/, Gorynvd/, EstradaAnton/, sruilk/

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