On and off throughout her college years, 23-year-old Megan McTigue vaped nicotine. She tried to quit multiple times, but couldn't quite kick the habit.
"I've tried nicotine pouches to wean off of the inhalation aspect, lollipops to help with oral fixation, and signed up for one of the text services that sends you frequent reminders and tips on how to quit," Megan told BuzzFeed. "I had thrown out my own device probably two or three times, but ended up buying another weeks or months after."
Megan threw out her JUUL in December and has only vaped occasionally since then. This change in behavior was partially motivated by a recent medical scare. "I had been having general lower back soreness probably since late high school, but in the past 2–3 months, I had fully thrown out my back to the point where it was really painful to stand/walk/bend over," she said. "I knew that shouldn't really be happening for someone my age who's in relatively good physical health."
She went to see an orthopedic doctor who specializes in spine issues, and she got both an MRI and X-ray. "When the doctor looked at my MRI, he noted that my three lower discs were slightly degenerated. While my upper discs appeared white and thicker in the MRI, my three lower ones were almost black and significantly thinner," Megan said. Here's a labeled image:
Her doctor noted that this type of disc degeneration was usually seen in people over the age of 50 — not someone in their early twenties. He then asked Megan if she vaped. "I told him I had for a couple of years, and he told me studies have found that nicotine can change the chemical makeup of your spinal disc cells so that they absorb less water and degenerate," she said. Megan decided to share her story on TikTok, in hopes that it would deter young people from nicotine use.
"This may or may not have been my personal cause for my back issues, but he said it could definitely contribute, especially if I already had risk factors like a family history of back issues," Megan said. "He urged me to stop vaping for that reason."
For more insight into the relationship between nicotine and degenerating discs, BuzzFeed reached out to Dr. Colin Haines, spine surgeon and director of research at the Virginia Spine Institute, as well as Dr. Georgiy Brusovanik, minimally invasive spine and orthopedic surgeon at the Miami Back & Neck Specialists.
Both doctors confirmed that there is a proven relationship between nicotine use and disc degeneration. "Animal and clinical studies have been performed showing a high statistical correlation," Dr. Brusovanik said.
Dr. Haines dug into the science of this correlation. "Nicotine causes vasoconstriction, or the shrinking of blood vessels. Blood vessels circulate the blood throughout our bodies, carrying oxygen and nutrients. A reduced blood supply to an area results in a reduction of oxygen delivery. In addition, nicotine creates an acidic environment inside the discs which leads to disc degeneration," he said.
Dr. Brusovanik and Dr. Haines said there can be an impact on disc health from both occasional and long-term nicotine use. "Nicotine is a toxin that causes these issues with every exposure. However, the longer the exposure, the more damage that is done. It has both an immediate and a cumulative effect," Dr. Haines said.
Unfortunately, Dr. Brusovanik said there's "a minimal improvement in health of the disc with smoking cessation." But stopping as soon as possible can help prevent further degeneration. "Quit, quit, quit!" Dr. Haines said. "Quit the nicotine exposure. No matter how long the nicotine use was prior to quitting, it helps tremendously."
Disc degeneration alone doesn't always cause discomfort. The reason Megan was experiencing pain was because the degeneration led to her discs herniating and pressing into her nerve, she said. Her first stage of treatment is physical therapy. If that doesn't help, she would start taking a steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine. The last resort would be surgery to remove the herniated part of her disc.
"I wanted to share my story so that people like me who were frequently vaping would know that our lungs weren't the only things getting messed up by the vape — it could affect your spine and consequently your ability to do everyday things that most young people should be able to do," Megan said.
"I received countless comments on my original TikTok of people saying they had just recently quit, but were considering relapsing, and that my video had given them the extra push they needed to remain nicotine-free," she said. "If I could give people struggling with nicotine addiction another reason to quit, I wanted to do that."
Here are some resources if you or someone you love is ready to quit vaping: