Smoking is a pain in the back

November 3, 2014, Northwestern University
Credit: Vera Kratochvil/public domain

If you want to avoid chronic back pain, put out the cigarette. A new Northwestern Medicine® study has found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain, and dropping the habit may cut your chances of developing this often debilitating condition.

"Smoking affects the brain," said Bogdan Petre, lead author of the study and a technical scientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "We found that it affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain."

This is the first evidence to link and chronic pain with the part of the brain associated with addiction and reward. The study was published online in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

The results come from a longitudinal observational study of 160 adults with new cases of back pain. At five different times throughout the course of a year they were given MRI brain scans and were asked to rate the intensity of their back pain and fill out a questionnaire which asked about and other health issues. Thirty-five healthy control participants and 32 participants with were similarly monitored.

Scientists analyzed MRI activity between two brain areas (nucleus accumbens and , NAc-mPFC), which are involved in addictive behavior, and motivated learning. This circuitry is critical in development of chronic pain, the scientists found.

These two regions of the brain "talk" to one another and scientists discovered that the strength of that connection helps determine who will become a chronic pain patient. By showing how a part of the brain involved in motivated learning allows tobacco addiction to interface with pain chronification, the findings hint at a potentially more general link between addiction and pain.

"That circuit was very strong and active in the brain's of smokers," Petre said. "But we saw a dramatic drop in this circuit's activity in smokers who—of their own will—quit smoking during the study, so when they stopped smoking, their vulnerably to chronic pain also decreased."

Medication, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, did help study participants manage pain, but it didn't change the activity of the brain circuitry. In the future, behavioral interventions, such as smoking cessation programs, could be used to manipulate mechanisms as an effective strategy for prevention and relief.

Explore further: Fibromyalgia and the role of brain connectivity in pain inhibition

Related Stories

Fibromyalgia and the role of brain connectivity in pain inhibition

October 1, 2014
The cause of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome is not known. However, the results of a new study that compares brain activity in individuals with and without fibromyalgia indicate that decreased connectivity between pain-related ...

Study shows early brain changes predict which patients develop chronic pain

July 1, 2012
When people have similar injuries, why do some end up with chronic pain while others recover and are pain free? The first longitudinal brain imaging study to track participants with a new back injury has found the chronic ...

Study shows link between smoking and chronic pain in women

September 28, 2011
Kentucky women who smoke heavily may experience more chronic musculoskeletal pain, suggests a new study led by University of Kentucky researchers.

Oxycodone may be more dangerous than other addictive pain medication

October 6, 2014
While all prescription opioids can be abused, oxycodone may be more potent in its ability to promote changes in the brain relevant to addiction.

Exercise could help predict susceptibility to chronic pain

October 20, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Scientists know that exercise helps the body tolerate pain. But some feel more benefits than others.

Predicting who will have chronic pain

September 17, 2013
Abnormalities in the structure of the brain predispose people to develop chronic pain after a lower back injury, according to new Northwestern Medicine research. The findings could lead to changes in the way physicians treat ...

Recommended for you

Study looks at how newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels

February 19, 2018
A new study published today found that a newly discovered gene helps grow blood vessels when it senses inadequate blood flow to tissues.

Scientists produce human intestinal lining that re-creates living tissue inside organ-chip

February 16, 2018
Investigators have demonstrated how cells of a human intestinal lining created outside an individual's body mirror living tissue when placed inside microengineered Intestine-Chips, opening the door to personalized testing ...

Data wave hits health care

February 16, 2018
Technology used by Facebook, Google and Amazon to turn spoken language into text, recognize faces and target advertising could help doctors fight one of the deadliest infections in American hospitals.

Researcher explains how statistics, neuroscience improve anesthesiology

February 16, 2018
It's intuitive that anesthesia operates in the brain, but the standard protocol among anesthesiologists when monitoring and dosing patients during surgery is to rely on indirect signs of arousal like movement, and changes ...

Team reports progress in pursuit of sickle cell cure

February 16, 2018
Scientists have successfully used gene editing to repair 20 to 40 percent of stem and progenitor cells taken from the peripheral blood of patients with sickle cell disease, according to Rice University bioengineer Gang Bao.

Appetite-controlling molecule could prevent 'rebound' weight gain after dieting

February 15, 2018
Scientists have revealed how mice control their appetite when under stress such as cold temperatures and starvation, according to a new study by Monash University and St Vincent's Institute in Melbourne. The results shed ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

big_hairy_jimbo
not rated yet Nov 03, 2014
There should be FAR MORE studies done on smokers.
Smokers (I used to be one), intentionally poison themselves despite developing illness and disease. What better subjects to study the effects of long term poisoning than smokers!!!!

I experienced an acute Rheumatoid Arthritis condition at one point, and smoking would ramp up the pain a million fold within seconds of inhalation. Consequently I have up smoking!!!!!
I also found nicotine patches did the same, but the pain would take up to 10 minutes to develop. Then muscles would cramp up getting tighter and tighter. So this article comes as no surprise to me!!!!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.