Effects of Tobacco Smoking on the Degeneration of the Intervertebral Disc: A Finite Element Study

PLoS One. 2015 Aug 24;10(8):e0136137. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136137. eCollection 2015.


Tobacco smoking is associated with numerous pathological conditions. Compelling experimental evidence associates smoking to the degeneration of the intervertebral disc (IVD). In particular, it has been shown that nicotine down-regulates both the proliferation rate and glycosaminoglycan (GAG) biosynthesis of disc cells. Moreover, tobacco smoking causes the constriction of the vascular network surrounding the IVD, thus reducing the exchange of nutrients and anabolic agents from the blood vessels to the disc. It has been hypothesized that both nicotine presence in the IVD and the reduced solute exchange are responsible for the degeneration of the disc due to tobacco smoking, but their effects on tissue homeostasis have never been quantified. In this study, a previously presented computational model describing the homeostasis of the IVD was deployed to investigate the effects of impaired solute supply and nicotine-mediated down-regulation of cell proliferation and biosynthetic activity on the health of the disc. We found that the nicotine-mediated down-regulation of cell anabolism mostly affected the GAG concentration at the cartilage endplate, reducing it up to 65% of the value attained in normal physiological conditions. In contrast, the reduction of solutes exchange between blood vessels and disc tissue mostly affected the nucleus pulposus, whose cell density and GAG levels were reduced up to 50% of their normal physiological levels. The effectiveness of quitting smoking on the regeneration of a degenerated IVD was also investigated, and showed to have limited benefit on the health of the disc. A cell-based therapy in conjunction with smoke cessation provided significant improvements in disc health, suggesting that, besides quitting smoking, additional treatments should be implemented in the attempt to recover the health of an IVD degenerated by tobacco smoking.

MeSH terms

  • Cartilage / drug effects
  • Cartilage / pathology
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Finite Element Analysis
  • Glycosaminoglycans / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc / drug effects*
  • Intervertebral Disc / physiopathology
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / chemically induced
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / physiopathology*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Nicotine / adverse effects*
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Smoking / adverse effects*


  • Glycosaminoglycans
  • Nicotine
  • Oxygen

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.