Smoking Can Be a Chronic Pain in Your Neck

As if strokes, lung cancer and heart disease weren’t enough reasons not to smoke, researchers have linked smoking to worsening degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine.

This is according to Mitchel Leavitt, MD; resident physician at Emory University’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the lead investigator of a new study looking at smoking and cervical disc disease.

The cervical spine, located in the neck, is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between these bones are cervical discs that absorb shock to the spine. Over time these discs dehydrate and shrink as they slowly degenerate. This erosion could result in chronic neck pain that may be difficult to treat. However, it isn’t only wear and tear over time that can damage these discs.

“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,” Dr. Leavitt explains.

“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 do not receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

While smoking has been associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine, no studies have been able to make this association with the cervical spine. To address this, Dr. Leavitt’s team evaluated the CT scans of 182 consecutive patients who were scanned for various reasons.

“There are more and more high-quality studies coming out that show an association between healthy lifestyle and improved quality and quantity of life as well as better disease management. Spine health is no different, and this study adds to existing studies that have looked at blood vessel health as it relates to chronic back pain,” Dr. Leavitt says.

The researchers utilised a radiologist with subspecialty training in neuroradiology and a physiatrist to review the CT scans, and they provided documentation on the severity of cervical degenerative disc disease.

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