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Smoking and Headaches

Before you read further into this blog post, this is not an article to completely denounce or “scare” you about smoking. This article is strictly educational about the effects of the use of tobacco and the effects it causes in regards to headaches.


There are plenty of studies that are available to the general public that show a direct correlation between many classifications of headaches, including the infamous migraine, and with people who smoke and/or people who have been significantly exposed to secondhand smoke. The reason this happens is because of the effects that nicotine has on the blood vessels throughout the body. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict. Constriction of blood vessels in certain parts of the brain, and in the meninges (the protective tissues that cover the brain), leads to altered brain activity associated with headache symptoms. Men are more dispositioned to experience cluster headaches, the severe headaches that are more localized around and behind the one eye, and women are more dispositioned to experience migraines. Despite the fact that the likelihood to experience a certain classification of headache can be gender specific, many studies show that smoking and use of tobacco products has been shown to cause headaches or intensify the pain associated with them.

When we describe this situation to our patients, we tell them to imagine they are watering plants with a garden hose and the water is coming out of the hose gradually. Then, a spouse, neighbor or child comes and steps down on the hose or kinks the hose as a practical joke. Obviously, little to no water will come out and the plants will not be able to be sufficiently watered. This is the same logic that is used for blood not sufficiently reaching different parts of the body. If blood flow is compromised and the nutrients that are transported within the blood do not get to the respective body parts, the body responds with pain. In this case, it would be a headache or migraine.

As previously stated, headaches and migraines can be caused, brought on, or intensified by the use of tobacco products or by being significantly exposed to secondhand smoke. Even the scent of a cigarette has been shown to cause a migraine or headache simply by the smell of the smoke. For some patients, the smell of cigarette smoke alone can be a migraine trigger. This means that non-smokers who live with or spend time with smokers may experience more serious and frequent migraines due to secondhand smoke. Although the inhale is not enough to trigger a cough or reaction to the nicotine; even the faint scent of smoke can be an irritant. Nicotine use has also been shown to be a reoccurring variable when people have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression which are themselves common triggers of migraines. It has been shown that people who experience prolonged anxiety, whether due to everyday stresses and/or worries, such as those associated with financial situations or responsibilities at home or in the workplace, are more at risk of experiencing a migraine.

Now that we have spoken primarily about the problems caused by smoking when it comes to headaches, let’s discuss how to fix these problems. Of course, eliminating tobacco and nicotine-based products from use would be the “easiest” solution. We say “easiest” when we are talking about the best and most effective thing you can do, not so much as the actual “easiest” option to do. Stopping an addiction is no easy feat and takes an enormous amount of effort and will power. However, giving up tobacco and nicotine is a crucial step for those who wish to have a healthier life.

Whether you decide to quit or continue, there are things that you can do to relieve, manage, and if not completely resolve your headaches. Some of these options include:

  • Walking: low intensity aerobic activity has been clinically shown to help those who experience chronic pain by increasing blood flow throughout the entire body and allowing muscles to be actively engaged.

  • Yoga and meditation: these activities have been shown, in combination, to allow for people to manage and decrease anxiety and depression symptoms by practicing breathing techniques and increasing overall muscle relaxation.

  • Seek medical expertise: when it comes to migraines, medical management is always suggested. Migraines and headaches can be managed pharmaceutically and/or with certain types of injections.

  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy combines almost all the previously stated bullet points in addition to providing corrective exercises to promote good posture and manual techniques such as massage and stretching to relieve tight muscles and promote increased blood flow.

If you suffer from headaches, whether you smoke or not, please contact us via telephone, email, or come in and make an appointment in person. Headaches and migraines can be debilitating and extremely painful, so it is very important to take care of yourself. Contact us today!


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