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Brain Study Links Smoking to Back Pain

Update Date: Nov 03, 2014 04:58 PM EST

Smoking can increase the risk of suffering chronic back pain, according to a new study.

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain. The good news is that quitting tobacco can reduce the risk of developing chronic pain. Researchers have for the first time linked smoking and chronic pain to a brain region associated with addiction and reward.

"Smoking affects the brain," lead author Bogdan Petre, a technical scientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a news release. "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."

The latest study used data from a long-term observational study of 160 adults who suffered new cases of back pain, 35 healthy control participants and 32 participants who suffered chronic back pain.

Researchers in the latest study analyzed MRI activity between two brain areas involved in addictive behavior and motivated learning: nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex. They found that these two brain regions send signals to one another and that the strength of their connection can predict individuals who'll develop chronic 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."

The findings are published in the journal Human Brain Mapping

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