By Dennis Thompson Jr. | Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Put out that cigarette! People with chronic pain smoke more, even though smoking can actually make the pain worse.
Studies have found that people in chronic pain smoke tobacco at a greater rate than the general public, even though smoking interferes with pain management.
What’s behind the increased tobacco use in patients with chronic pain? Smoking appears to be a method some people adopt to manage pain. Studies have found that smokers increase their cigarette consumption when their pain increases. Researchers also have speculated that chronic pain patients smoke due to the depression or anxiety they are more likely to have as a result of their pain.
Chronic Pain and Smoking: The Statistics
More than half of chronic pain patients who have sought out pain management are known to smoke, compared with a 22 percent smoking rate for the United States as a whole. People who have experienced chronic neck pain or back pain their whole lives are much more likely to be longtime smokers.
Chronic Pain and Smoking: The Catch-22
Unfortunately, pain management patients who turn to smoking as a way to cope are entering into a vicious cycle. Smoking interferes with pain management in a number of ways. As their chronic pain remains unresolved and perhaps even increases, people may find themselves smoking even more to cope with the pain. Also, smokers tend to be less responsive to chronic pain treatment, such as pain relief therapies.
Medical experts say smoking can interfere with pain management and chronic pain treatment by:
- Causing or exacerbating painful medical conditions. Smoking is incredibly harmful to the body and can lead to diseases known to cause chronic pain. For example, smoking causes chronic back and neck pain by contributing to osteoporosis and the deterioration of spinal discs. Smokers are as much as 2.7 times more likely to experience lower back pain than those who don’t smoke. Smoking also contributes to the joint pain found in conditions like arthritis.
- Increasing pain sensitivity and perception. Studies have found that smoking causes people to perceive pain more acutely. Tobacco use appears to have some effect on the nervous system, increasing sensations and perceptions of pain.
- Interfering with pain medication. Smokers require more medication to ease their pain, research has found. That goes for standard analgesics like aspirin as well as for narcotic painkillers; it takes larger doses of both to reduce or manage pain in smokers.
Chronic Pain and Smoking: How to Quit
Quitting smoking can tremendously benefit your chronic pain treatment. Here are some tips on how to quit:
- Choose your quit day. Picking a day when you will quit smoking gives you time to prepare. Don’t choose a day that’s too soon or too far away. Sometime around two weeks from now is best.
- Ask family and friends for help. Tell them you’ve chosen a quit day and ask for their moral support. Warn them you’re likely to be moody for some time, and ask their forgiveness in advance. Let them know the ways in which they can assist you.
- Prepare yourself for quit day. Go through your house and car and get rid of all your tobacco products and smoking paraphernalia. Throw away all your ashtrays, matches, and lighters. Assess the day-to-day activities that seem to trigger your craving for a cigarette and make plans to avoid those triggers or prepare a substitute for smoking.
- Use nicotine replacement products.Nicotine patches, gum, and inhalers can help smokers fight cravings. Talk to your doctor about which combination of products might best assist you in quitting.
- Join a support group. There are lots of other people trying to kick the habit, too. A support group can help you by boosting your spirits and giving you some needed advice.
Once you understand how smoking actually worsens chronic pain, you may find the motivation to quit smoking once and for all.