Leonard Nimoy, Star of Star Trek – Explores Lung Problems and Back Pain

Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy died on February 27 at the age of 83. He is best known for his role playing Spock on the 1960s television show Star Trek. He played the emotionless and yet beloved alien Vulcan who was the conscience of an often campy science fiction series that took on social issues on the 1960s. He is synonymous for his catch phrase “Live long and prosper” with hand raised in Vulcan salute. One month before his death, he more recently shared, “Don’t smoke. I did. Wish I never had.” This blog will explore the relationship between smoking, lung disease and back pain.


The Star Trek star died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD. He was not alone. The American Lung Association estimates that between 12 and 24 million people in the United States have COPD. It is the No. 3 killer in the United States and cigarette smoking is the most common cause. COPD is a group of lung diseases, emphysema and chronic bronchitis being the most common, that blocks airflow and make it difficult to breath. Damage to the lungs from COPD cannot be reversed. Instead treatment focuses on helping to manage symptoms and decrease further damage.

Besides the more obvious respiratory symptoms of wheezing, shortness or breath and frequent lung infections inherent in a lung disease, COPD is also associated with pain. Up to 50% of people with COP suffer from some kind of pain, which is often back pain. The pain from COPD can come from many places, interestingly not directly from the lungs themselves.

Experiencing back pain related to smoking or lung disease?

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Pain with COPD

One common location of pain in people with COPD is the chest. There is chest pain from the increased strain on the muscles that have to work harder to breath. It can also result from frequent coughing. People with COPD cough. They cough a lot. The coughing is a way for the body to try to remove the build up of excess mucus out of the lungs or as a reaction to irritants in the lungs.

Sometimes the coughing is severe enough that there are bone fractures. If the fractures are in the spine they can lead to severe backaches. These bone fractures, called vertebra fractures, are more often found in people who also have osteoporosis, or a weakening of the bones. Osteoporosis affects up to 20% of people with COPD. This link may be due to chronic inflammation, use of steroid medication, and a history of smoking, poor nutrition and inactivity.

Treatment of pain with COPD

The focus of pain management for people with COPD is to ease suffering, to allow people to be more functional, and to get on with their lives. Pain management for COPD includes:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications – or NSAIDs – such as ibuprofen, Motrin and Advil.Opioids – such as morphine and hydrocodone.
  • Anti-depressants – shown to reduce depression and anxiety as well as pain
  • Acupuncture
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation – TENS unit
  • Vertebroplasty – a minimally invasive procedure to decrease the pain of vertebra bone fractures

Bottom Line

Please don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of COPD. If you do have COPD there is often pain and it need to be well treated. If the coughing associated with COPD is severe enough there may be pain due to fractures in the spine. For more information on back pain with osteoporosis please see my article “Oh, My Broken Back – Help Is Available For Back Pain” or contact me at 504-732-1094 for more information.

Live long and prosper and if you have chronic pain, especially in the back, see your pain management doctor.