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Does nicotine cause neuropathy?

Neuropathy refers to damage to the peripheral nerves that transmit information from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. Peripheral neuropathy results in pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, and other symptoms in the extremities including the feet, legs, hands, and arms. There are many potential causes of peripheral neuropathy including diabetes, autoimmune diseases, infections, toxins, trauma, and nutritional deficiencies. Nicotine is one substance that has been associated with increased risk for developing peripheral neuropathy. This article will examine the evidence on whether nicotine use and exposure can cause neuropathy.

What is Nicotine?

Nicotine is a naturally occurring colorless, oily liquid that turns brown when exposed to air. It is found primarily in the leaves of tobacco plants. Nicotine acts as a stimulant drug that binds to and activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain and throughout the body. This triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine which produce feelings of pleasure and reward.

In addition to tobacco products like cigarettes, nicotine is also found in some vaping liquids, gums, patches, and lozenges designed to help people quit smoking. Nicotine on its own is not a carcinogen, but it is highly addictive. Along with other chemicals found in tobacco smoke, nicotine exposure over time can lead to serious cardiovascular and respiratory issues.

Mechanisms by Which Nicotine Could Cause Neuropathy

There are several mechanisms by which nicotine could theoretically contribute to peripheral neuropathy:

Vasospasm and ischemia

Nicotine causes constriction of blood vessels and reduces blood flow to extremities through vasospasm. This ischemia or lack of oxygen can damage peripheral nerves over time. Nicotine may exacerbate underlying vascular disease or diabetes-related circulation issues.

Oxidative stress

Nicotine increases free radical production and oxidative stress throughout the body. High levels of reactive oxygen species can damage proteins, cell membranes, lipids, and DNA. This includes damage to the myelin sheath surrounding peripheral nerves.


Nicotine activates inflammatory pathways involving cytokines like TNF-alpha and IL-6. Chronic inflammation is thought to play a role in certain peripheral neuropathies.

Mitochondrial dysfunction

Nicotine impairs mitochondrial energy production. Mitochondrial toxicity and dysfunction is implicated in some types of sensory neuropathies.


Overactivation of acetylcholine receptors by nicotine may cause excito-toxicity resulting in nerve cell damage and death over time. This may deplete populations of peripheral sensory neurons.

Epidemiological Evidence Linking Nicotine and Neuropathy

Smoking and neuropathy risk

Several large population-based studies have found links between smoking tobacco cigarettes and increased risk for peripheral neuropathy:

  • A meta-analysis of 16 studies with over 68,000 participants found current smokers had a 72% increased risk of neuropathy compared to never smokers.
  • The NIH-AARP cohort study including over 400,000 people found heavy smokers had double the risk of developing neuropathy compared to never smokers over 9 years of follow-up.
  • An analysis of the 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found the prevalence of peripheral neuropathy was 26% in current smokers versus 10% in former smokers and 7% in never smokers.

These epidemiological findings support an association between tobacco smoking and peripheral neuropathy risk. However, these studies cannot determine whether nicotine itself causes neuropathy, since tobacco smoke contains many other toxic chemicals as well.

Smokeless tobacco use

A few studies have looked more specifically at smokeless tobacco use:

  • The NIH-AARP study found a 43% increased risk of neuropathy among smokeless tobacco users compared to never users.
  • A study of baseball players found that smokeless tobacco use for over 20 years increased the risk of ulnar neuropathy by 2.6 times.

These findings provide some evidence that nicotine itself could contribute to neuropathy separate from other components of tobacco smoke. However, more research is needed looking specifically at nicotine exposures from smokeless tobacco, vaping, patches, gums, and other sources.

Animal Studies on Nicotine and Neuropathy

Animal studies allow researchers to isolate the effects of nicotine and minimize confounding factors present in human observational studies.

Several rodent studies have shown peripheral nerve damage and sensory deficits with nicotine administration:

  • Nicotine injections in mice led to dose-dependent nerve conduction slowing and axon degeneration in the sciatic nerve.
  • Chronic nicotine in drinking water caused myelinated fiber loss and necrosis in rat peripheral nerves.
  • Nicotine injections resulted in oxidative damage and ischemia in the vasa nervorum supplying the sciatic nerve in rats.
  • Mice exposed to nicotine showed reductions in intraepidermal nerve fiber density similar to what is seen in small fiber peripheral neuropathy.

These animal studies provide evidence that nicotine has direct toxic effects on peripheral nerves. However, rodent models do not always perfectly translate to effects in humans.

Conclusion on Nicotine and Neuropathy

In summary, there are biologically plausible mechanisms by which nicotine could contribute to peripheral nerve damage and neuropathy in humans. Epidemiological studies consistently link tobacco smoking with increased neuropathy risk, while evidence for smokeless tobacco is more limited. Animal studies demonstrate toxic effects of nicotine on peripheral nerves.

Based on current evidence, it appears nicotine exposure likely contributes to neuropathy risk, especially in the context of long-term smoking. However, more research is needed to conclusively determine nicotine’s role independent of other tobacco smoke contents. Carefully controlled human studies isolating the effects of nicotine are still lacking.

People concerned about minimizing neuropathy risk may consider avoiding or reducing nicotine exposures from tobacco, vaping, gums, patches and other sources. Those already experiencing neuropathy symptoms should disclose all nicotine or tobacco use to their neurologist. More research is warranted on whether nicotine cessation could help prevent progression or improve neuropathy in susceptible individuals. Monitoring circulating nicotine levels could help quantify exposure in relation to neuropathy onset and severity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does vaping cause neuropathy?

There is limited research on whether vaping and exposure to nicotine through e-cigarettes can cause peripheral neuropathy. Some case reports describe individual patients developing neuropathy after beginning vaping. More population-based studies are needed to determine if vaping nicotine raises neuropathy risk like traditional cigarette smoking.

Can nicotine patches or gum cause neuropathy?

Nicotine replacement therapy like patches and gums have not been directly linked to peripheral neuropathy. However, they expose users to nicotine which may contribute to neuropathy development, especially with long-term use. Moderate use of NRTs to quit smoking likely carries less neuropathy risk than ongoing heavy tobacco use.

Does nicotine cause small fiber neuropathy?

Small fiber neuropathy affects the small unmyelinated C and thinly myelinated A-delta fibers conveying pain, temperature, and autonomic signals. Animal studies show nicotine can reduce epidermal nerve fiber density consistent with small fiber damage. More research is needed to determine if nicotine preferentially damages small fiber nerves in humans.

Can nicotine cause autonomic neuropathy?

Autonomic neuropathy affects the nerves regulating involuntary functions like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and bladder control. Nicotine could theoretically contribute to autonomic neuropathy through mechanisms like oxidative stress, inflammation, and vasa nervorum damage which can affect both sensory and autonomic nerves. But more research is required to specifically link nicotine to increased risk of autonomic neuropathy.

Does nicotine cause optic neuropathy?

There is no evidence at this time linking nicotine exposure to specific increased risk of optic neuropathies like glaucoma or ischemic optic neuropathy. Tobacco smoking (including nicotine) does appear to worsen progression of certain optic neuropathies like Leber hereditary optic neuropathy. But more research is needed on nicotine’s isolated effects on the optic nerve.

Can nicotine withdrawal cause neuropathy symptoms?

Nicotine withdrawal after stopping tobacco use can cause headaches, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. However, there is no evidence it directly worsens peripheral neuropathy symptoms. Withdrawal may make existing neuropathy symptoms subjectively feel more severe due to anxiety and irritability.

Is nicotine-induced neuropathy permanent?

Whether nicotine-induced nerve damage is permanent or partially reversible with smoking cessation is unknown. If nicotine exposure triggers an irreversible process like axonal degeneration, the resulting neuropathy may persist even with nicotine avoidance. But quitting smoking could halt further progression and prevent additional nerve injury. More longitudinal studies are needed on whether neuropathy improves with smoking cessation.

How is nicotine-induced neuropathy treated?

There are no specific treatments for nicotine-induced neuropathy beyond smoking cessation and nicotine avoidance. Symptomatic neuropathy is treated with medications like gabapentin, tricyclic antidepressants, SNRIs, opioids, and topical creams depending on the type and severity of symptoms. Supportive care like physical therapy and assistive devices can also help retain mobility and function. Treatment focuses on reducing pain, paresthesias, and imbalance but cannot necessarily reverse or cure the underlying nerve damage.


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