When you quit smoking, it can be disappointing, to say the least, when you find yourself experiencing all sorts of health issues. You will have stopped smoking to improve your health, not to make it worse! Some smokers report that when they have attempted to quit, their entire bodies have started hurting. Why would that be?
The cytokine cyclone
The withdrawal symptoms smokers experience when they quit are many and varied. Most of these symptoms are similar to those associated with acute and chronic illness and are caused by cytokines. Produced by white blood cells, cytokines are one of the body’s responses to inflammation. Back in 2002, researchers at Penn State university decided to investigate whether cytokines could be factors in the symptoms that smokers endure when they quit.
During the study, the researchers tested the blood of smokers before and after they attempted to quit. The participants also completed questionnaires to help gauge the withdrawal symptoms they were experiencing. It became clear that nicotine withdrawal caused aching muscles and that cytokines were involved, particularly the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6). Production of interleukin-6 (IL-6) increased during nicotine withdrawal and this is the cytokine associated with aching muscles.
The long and short of it is that nicotine withdrawal drives an inflammatory response in your body which leads to aches and pains.
Smokers endure more aches and pains anyway
Research has also shown that smokers experience more aches and pains than non-smokers, even before they attempt to quit. A report published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases in 2003 showed that smokers are at higher risk for muscle and joint pain. They are also more likely to suffer from chronic disabilities. However, the researchers commented that it was difficult to say whether tobacco impacts the pain sensors in the body or whether people with a low pain threshold are more likely to take up smoking.
Could it be that smokers are more sensitive to pain and that the depression associated with quitting simply causes quitters to be more aware of the aches they are suffering?
Nicotine withdrawal leads to increased pain sensitivity
Further research conducted in 2014 revealed that nicotine withdrawal is associated with increased pain sensitivity. Smokers, non-smokers and quitters were subjected to cold and heat in order to assess their pain responses. Nicotine stimulates the release of catecholamines, activating the cardiovascular system. This process is linked to pain suppression. When smokers quit, they quickly become more sensitive to pain.
When you bring the stress associated with quitting into the mix not to mention the increased production of cytokines, smokers inevitably experience pain at precisely the time they have become more sensitive to that pain. Little wonder some quitters feel that their whole body aches.
Smoking tricks you into feeling good
Another factor that it is important to consider is the impact of smoking on mood. Smoking triggers the release of chemicals in the body that deliver a reward sensation. They make smokers feel good instantly when they take a puff. Smokers can limit the impact of pain by smoking. But the uplifting feelings they are experiencing simply mask any aches. The causes of the pain are not addressed. When smokers quit, their pain relief crutch is kicked away, and the pain becomes more intense.
To make matters worse, tobacco impairs the delivery of oxygen to bones and tissues. This can lead to degeneration, particularly in the discs of the spine. Smoking may provide temporary relief from pain, but it is probably causing many of the painful conditions in the first place.
When smokers quit, they are likely to experience pain and in many areas of their bodies. Their smoking habit caused painful conditions but while they continued to smoke, the resulting pain was masked. When they attempt to quit, they no longer benefit from the pain relief provided by cigarettes and so it is inevitable that the pain resulting from underlying conditions will appear to be worse. Nicotine withdrawal seems to cause further muscle aches while simultaneously enhancing sensitivity to pain. It isn’t yet clear to what extent the pain sensitivity of quitters improves over time.
Happily, reformed smokers will find that their bodies do adjust to their new situation. Many of the withdrawal symptoms will eventually subside, including muscle aches. But if smoking has damaged discs and joints, that damage will not be reversed. Smokers who quit may have to accept they will suffer more pain. Not because of withdrawal symptoms but because smoking damaged their bodies.