Vaping and Its Effects on Spine Health

No matter your age, neither vaping nor cigarette smoking is good for the spine. But the harm can be reversed.

For years, the use of electronic vaping devices or e-cigarettes has been recommended to people to “kick the habit” of traditional cigarette smoking. The e-cigarette was created in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist, to serve as an alternative to conventional smoking.

To be sure, devices that electronically introduce nicotine into the body may contain fewer chemicals than the smoke inhaled from burned tobacco products. However, these devices don’t have zero chemicals, and the health effects of those they do contain can be debilitating – including on the spine.

Adverse Effects on Spine Health

To date, the research on the adverse health effects of e-cigarettes and vaping devices isn’t as voluminous as what’s available about cigarette smoking. To be fair to scientific researchers, such devices have been known to the public for less than 20 years. Though that can seem like a long time, it isn’t when it comes to long-term research studies.

In addition, many of the liquids found in e-smoking devices aren’t tested for toxicity in the same way that those contained in cigarettes have been. However, though limited, the research we do have is compelling enough to encourage everyone away from any and all nicotine delivery devices.

A 2020 study that reviewed the available narrative literature on the effects of vaping on intervertebral disc health, bone health and spinal fusion found that exposure to carcinogens from e-cigarettes is associated with an increase in oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Oxidative stress and inflammation negatively impact bone health by modifying osteoblast proliferation and differentiation. Osteoblasts are the cells in the body required for the synthesis and mineralization of bone. In other words, they are the building blocks of strong, healthy bones – including those in the spine.

Additionally, nicotine – found in traditional and e-cigarettes – is long known to constrict blood vessels. The vertebral discs in the spine are already working with a small blood supply. So, when that supply is further reduced, spinal disc degeneration can follow.

Adults, Teens and Children Are Affected

It isn’t only adults who face the spine health risks associated with vaping. With the addition of fruit and candy-like flavorings to vape and e-cigarette products, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of these devices among adolescents in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration, via its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey, says that a concerning number of high school and middle school students are currently using tobacco products. Among those products, the use of e-cigarettes is “alarmingly high.”

Of additional and particular concern with vaping products is the highly addictive and ease-of-use options readily available to young people. According to the survey, disposable e-cigarette devices have surged in the U.S. over the last few years. These devices are cheap and easy to discard after use.

Because there isn’t yet as much publicly discussed research on the ill-effects of e-cigarette use as there is on the use of traditional cigarette and tobacco products, many young people (and adults, really) see these devices as “not as bad” for them as conventional cigarette smoking. For the youth and adolescent population, this is a time of life that is crucial for healthy bone development. Nearly half of all the adult skeletal mass a person will possess for their entire lifetime is grown during adolescence.

Strong, healthy bones are essential for staving off conditions like osteoporosis and fractures later in life. If we know that the toxicity found in e-cigarette and vaping products has adverse effects on our bones and overall health, we should be alarmed for our young people. Even with the sparse evidence we currently possess, the risk for long-term adverse spine health effects from vaping exists.

Benefits of Quitting Smoking

I do have some good news. You’ve probably heard it told to smokers that their lung tissue can begin to regenerate and repair itself almost immediately when a person chooses to quit smoking. The same can be true for the spine. When the onslaught of toxic chemicals on the body is ceased, the spinal discs can begin to restore and regenerate. But it’s essential to give them the best fighting chance by quitting for good.

If you’re a current smoker – stop, period. Talk to your doctor about what you can do for smoking cessation success. There are so many products and programs on the market today that can help. Your spine and your health deserve the effort.

Neel Anand MD