What You May Not Know About Cigarette Smoking and Your Health

Cigarette smoking negatively affects every organ of the body and is widely recognized as one the major causes of preventable disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), smoking causes more deaths each year than the following causes combined: HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.

Most people know that smoking is linked to heart and lung diseases, as well as several cancers. However, many people are not aware that smoking has a serious negative effect on other parts of the body, including bones, muscles and joints.

Cigarette smoking negatively impacts the rate and quality of healing from injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on multiple levels. Adverse effects of smoking on tissue oxygen levels have been demonstrated immediately after smoking just one cigarette, regardless of smoking history. On a microscopic level, chemicals found in cigarette smoke cause many changes to the way the body handles oxygen. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous by-product of cigarette smoke that has a 200 times greater affinity to bind with hemoglobin than oxygen. Hemoglobin is the molecule that carries oxygen throughout the body and, when exposed to cigarette smoke, it replaces oxygen with carbon monoxide to deliver to tissues. Cigarette smoking also increases the thickness of blood and narrows blood vessels, which both further contribute to impaired oxygen delivery.

When oxygen is not delivered to our tissues, cellular metabolism in the tissues is inhibited and healing is delayed or disrupted completely as a result. Furthermore, smoking increases chance of re-injury, as bones, tendons, and ligaments do not regain their full strength without adequate oxygen and nutrients.

Healing of injuries is a complex process. The air we breathe is filled with oxygen, which is needed for most functions in the body, including the repair process after an illness or injury. The healing trajectory can be interrupted at any stage by lack of oxygen to tissues.

Imagine a busy four-lane highway filled with big trucks hauling precious cargo necessary to survive in the same way that oxygen is required for human function. If this were the body, smoking would have the effect of shutting the highway down to two lanes, shrinking the trucks down to small cars with half the cargo, and pouring sticky tar on the road to delay the delivery. Much less cargo would arrive at its destination in a longer time. In the same way, areas of the body that need oxygen will go without, and will receive a toxic chemical instead of an essential nutrient.

In addition to poor healing and increased chance of re-injury, lack of oxygen to tissues has been found to increase infection risk and also results in reduced tolerance for exercise, frequent headaches, dry and inelastic skin with wrinkles and dull and grayish skin tone.

When you smoke, the number of white blood cells (the cells that defend your body from infections) remains high. Elevated white blood cell levels are a sign that the body is under constant stress as it is chronically fighting the inflammation and damage caused by smoking. With the immune system continuously trying to repair the damage done by smoking, the body’s ability to fight off any foreign pathogen, such as a virus or bacteria, is impaired. Chronic systemic inflammation also affects the way the body interprets pain signals. Many studies have found that smokers report more pain after surgery than non-smokers.

No matter your age or how long you have smoked, quitting can help. It is important to recognize that you are not alone in the struggle to stop smoking and there are many resources available to help you. By calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visiting www.smokefree.gov, you will be linked up with a professional “quit coach” free of charge to help you through this process.

Immediate benefits of quitting smoking within one day include decreased heart rate and blood pressure, and improved ability to breath. Within one month, quitting smoking will result in greater blood circulation, enhanced lung function and better sense of taste and smell. Within one year of quitting smoking, a person will have fewer colds and illnesses, decreased coughing, less shortness of breath and 50% decreased risk of heart disease.

It can be hard to quit because nicotine is addictive. Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal usually peak within 7-10 days and may include dizziness, depression, anxiety/irritability, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, headaches and increased appetite and weight gain.

To help get through this process and reduce withdrawal symptoms, you can take extra steps to manage the stress of quitting. Drink plenty of water, eat nutritious foods and get enough sleep. Avoid temptation to smoke by staying away from people and places that remind you of smoking. Keep substitutes ready when you are tempted to smoke, such as carrots, celery, pickles, apples, and sugar free gum. Utilize nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum, patches, inhalers and throat lozenges. Stay active by exercising, walking or cycling to help with restlessness and weight gain. People who exercise while quitting smoking have reported better success and fewer withdrawal symptoms. Finally, acknowledge that anger, frustration and worry are normal—you are worth the extra effort it takes to quit!

Article written by Dr. Jessica Khani, PT, DPT, CSCS

This information is for informational purposes and is not intended to be used in place of seeking individualized care from a healthcare professional.