If there weren’t enough reasons why you shouldn’t smoke, allow me to give you one more – neck pain. Recently, I was interviewed by a local radio station about new research which links smoking to worsening degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine (neck). While I have been interviewed and blogged numerous times about the adverse effects of smoking on spine health, I hope this new research will really hit home for those who are still smoking.
I know when most people hear the term ‘research,’ we think of it as being very complicated and difficult to understand. As a physician I have a duty to educate my patients and the public – so I want to focus on the most important parts of this new study – with the hope that its key message does not get lost in translation.
First, let’s discuss what the cervical spine is and where it is located. The cervical spine is located in the neck and it is made up of seven bones called vertebrae. Between these bones are cervical discs that act like shock absorbers for our spine. As we age, these discs begin to slowly wear out, or degenerate, because of the daily wear and tear we place on them. From exercise to texting, our spines endure a tremendous amount of stress throughout the day which causes them to become dehydrated and shrink. As a result, we may experience neck pain that can be difficult to treat in some people. In some cases, the dehydrated disc may develop cracks and tears, through which some of the jelly-like portion of the disc can spill out and irritate surrounding nerves. This may cause additional pain that radiates to the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.
Though this degenerative spine process can be associated with aging, it isn’t “normal.” And what’s worse, smoking speeds up that degenerative process in the spine. It also increases the risk of developing microvascular disease – a disease of the small blood vessels. When these blood vessels are damaged, spinal discs will not receive the nourishment they need to protect themselves from harm.
While smoking is also associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine (the vertebrae located in the lower back), this is the first study of its kind to link its damage to the neck. Though there is no specific cure for an aging spine, we can all do our part to prolong its health by engaging in healthy activities and eliminating unhealthy habits such as using tobacco.
Research provides doctors more opportunities to encourage our patients to quit smoking and chewing tobacco. And when it comes to improving the health of our patients, more is always better when it comes to education.
It’s true – we are not getting any younger, but let’s do everything in our power to defy father time so we can continue enjoying our morning jogs, weekend hikes and maybe crossing out one of our bucket list items– finishing a marathon. Bottom line, whatever it is you enjoy doing, let’s all practice what this study’s lead investigator Dr. Michael Leavitt so adeptly describes as ‘lifestyle medicine,’ so we can give ourselves the best chance to avoid chronic disease, painful ailments and the side-effects of having to take daily medication. If we do this, we will hopefully spend less days in a doctor’s office and more days with the ones we love.
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