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Published on June 03, 2019

Yet another reason to snuff that buttsmoking-and-neck-pain

When you think of the possible adverse health effects of smoking, you usually think of illnesses like lung cancer, emphysema, blood clots, stroke and heart attack. But, you can add another little-known danger to the list: irreversible damage to the cervical discs in the neck.

In a new study presented at the Association of Physiatrists annual meeting in Sacramento, California this month, researchers examined CT scans of 182 people. The results showed that smokers had more advanced cervical degenerative disease than non-smokers.

The study’s findings didn’t come as a surprise to Cape Cod Hospital neurosurgeon Paul Houle, MD, of Cape Cod Healthcare Neurosurgery.

“It’s not uncommon for us to see people who are smokers have degenerative changes in their discs as a direct result of cigarette smoking,” Dr. Houle said. “I did three cervical spine surgeries yesterday and two of them were heavy smokers. You could see the changes in their bone marrow and in the discs themselves. It’s something that is clearly evident, so it’s a real phenomenon.”

The cervical spine is made up of seven vertebrae that are separated by six discs that are filled with a gel-like substance that acts as a cushion. The discs naturally become dehydrated and shrink with age, but that process is accelerated in smokers.

“What happens is the nicotine in the cigarettes causes vasoconstriction which restricts blood flow,” Dr. Houle said. “The discs themselves have a very limited blood supply and the blood supply is on the outside part of the disc. So when you restrict blood flow there is a very limited ability for the disc to repair itself.”

Sometimes a disc can self-repair minor injuries but over a lifetime of wear and tear, that ability becomes impaired, especially when the disc degenerates at a faster rate, as it does in smokers.

Cervical disc disease causes radiating pain, numbness and weakness in a person’s neck, shoulders, arms and hands. It causes great discomfort and interferes with quality of life and the ability to do certain activities. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon disease.

“Cervical disc disease is one of the most common things we see,” Dr. Houle said. “There are a lot of reasons why people have degenerative discs in their cervical spine. It’s just the way our bodies are built because we walk upright and the neck is constantly in motion. So it’s not uncommon for people to develop problems. What accelerates those problems and makes whatever problems you do develop worse is the restriction of blood flow. And the most common way blood flow is restricted in our society is cigarette smoking.”

Smoking also causes the exact same problems in the lumbar spine of the lower back, Dr. Houle added. For these reasons, he and his colleagues always counsel their patients to quit smoking. He said that once the damage is done, it will never heal on its own, but there are still very good reasons to quit.

“Quitting smoking doesn’t fix the problem, but if a person comes to surgery, the healing is faster, and they are more likely to have a good outcome and less likely to have complications,” he said.

Nicotine is a powerful addictive substance and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [pdf] say that people who receive coaching support are more likely to succeed in quitting. If you are interested in quitting smoking, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free advice and to speak with experienced smoking cessation counselors who will help you make a plan to succeed. Your neck – and your whole body – will thank you.