The Complex Relationship Between Smoking and Arthritis

By April 20, 2023April 25th, 2023Arthritis

smoking and arthritisIt should come to no one’s surprise that smoking can be the cause of a lot of different illnesses, for a wide variety of reasons. Yet when people think of smoking and its adverse effects on the body, they usually think of the lungs, or the heart. In truth, one of the first signs of excessive smoking will be chronic pain, especially in the joints. 

It’s not just that smoke inhalation can affect healing and recovery, that nicotine is a dangerous and toxic substance in higher quantities, or that the pesticides used in the production of tobacco are carcinogenic. It’s a combination of each of these things resulting in entirely different problems in the body – including worsening symptoms of joint pain from smoking with arthritis. 

The Links Between Smoking and Arthritis

Arthritis is a generic term for multiple different causes of joint pain, including conditions where joint pain is the primary symptom. Usually, when a person has arthritis, this means that they are experiencing joint pain.  

Some forms of arthritis are the result of wear and tear, exacerbated by lifestyle choices such as smoking. Other forms of arthritis are caused by auto-immune disorders, where the body begins attacking its own healthy tissue, mistaking it for an infection or a foreign body. In total, there are over a hundred different conditions that cause or are linked to serious joint pain. Yet all of them are impacted by smoking, as well as other forms of tobacco or nicotine consumption. 

Smoking can negatively affect most forms of arthritis by:

  • Damaging your blood vessels
  • Negatively impacting healing
  • Increasing pain perception
  • Decreasing bone mass and joint stability
  • Increasing post-surgical complications
  • Interfering with anti-arthritic pain medication
  • Causing worse symptoms in auto-immune disorders
  • And much more.

How Smoking Affects Joint Pain

Tobacco smoke results in the buildup of tar in your lung tissue, which your body does a rather poor job of removing by itself. While the lungs are capable of a great deal of self-cleaning through the chemical breakdown of certain irritants and the physical removal of unwanted material through coughing, there is a limit to what the lungs can handle, and regular doses of inhaled smoke often go well beyond that limit. 

The physical irritation of the lungs can affect the body’s ability to oxygenate the blood, slowing down recovery and healing. The joints in your extremities are at a greater risk of pain as a result of this, because it takes longer for blood to reach these parts of the body. 

Nicotine is another reason smoking can interfere with joint health. While the immediate use of nicotine results in a pleasant sensation, nicotine consumption – whether through chewing tobacco, gum, vapor, or smoke – affects the brain, the heart, your nerves, and your bones. 

Nicotine consumption is linked to decreased bone mass, poorer bone health, and higher rates of osteoporosis. Furthermore, continued nicotine use can contribute to increased pain perception (lower pain thresholds) and interfere with common arthritis medication, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other painkillers.  

Regardless of what kind of arthritis you may be diagnosed with, studies show that smoking can worsen your joint pain

  • Increased inflammation: one of the main contributors to recurring or chronic arthritis is increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation is generally a good thing – but an excess amount, especially in a localized area, can cause significant discomfort. Smoking increases inflammation in a variety of ways, including lung damage, a direct buildup of white blood cells in response to nicotine use, tissue degeneration due to poor blood flow, and an aggravated immune system.  
  • Nicotine and blood flow: While the physical impact of smoking can reduce blood flow and oxygen saturation, nicotine itself also interferes with blood pressure as a stimulant. Like coffee, nicotine narrows the blood vessels and causes an increase in blood pressure, alongside a higher risk of an aneurysm or stroke. Nicotine also hardens arterial walls, greatly increasing the risk of a heart attack – and increasing joint pain. 
  • The link between smoking and rheumatoid arthritis: Auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and gout are common causes of joint pain. Smoking can trigger these disorders to go into overdrive, exacerbating symptoms and increasing pain. 
  • Tobacco accelerates joint damage and decreases bone mass and joint mobility: Healthy blood flow and oxygen saturation are important factors of a healthy circulatory system, which is necessary to help with the upkeep of damaged tissue. Osteoarthritis, which is joint pain caused by wear and tear, may be caused or exacerbated by lifestyle factors like smoking, which limit the body’s ability to repair damaged tissue and keep your joints healthy. This results in greater joint stiffness, loss of mobility, and pain in movement. 
  • Smoking complicates treatment: in addition to limiting the effects of conventional non-opioid painkillers, smoking can complicate arthritis treatment by affecting a patient’s eligibility for other forms of pain modulation, including implantable neurostimulators or pain pumps. Smoking also increases the risk of infection after surgery, which means doctors may be given pause when recommending surgery as a good option for their patient’s joint pain. 

Your Arthritis is Asking You to Quit

Whether it’s through increased pain perception, worsened symptoms of gout, higher inflammation, or due to the general risk of death through heart disease, stroke, or cancer, a doctor’s first recommendation to a smoking patient with a history of chronic illness would be to stop smoking

Of course, quitting is easier said than done. The conviction to stop smoking is rarely enough to kill the habit, as smoking can be addictive in more ways than one. Nicotine itself is an addictive substance, triggering intense cravings even months after the last cigarette. But there are other factors that make quitting smoking harder than even certain illicit drugs, such as the ubiquitous availability of tobacco products, or the social nature of smoking, like the smoke break, or seeing friends continue to smoke around you. 

Support is important, both within the family and the community. Talk to your pain specialist or doctor about local support groups or nicotine or cigarette addiction, and consider working with a therapist to help you and your family create a more ex-smoker-friendly home environment. 

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