Having surgery is an excellent time to quit smoking.
You've been having chest pain, you go to see your doctor, and are told that although you have blocked arteries in your heart, they can be fixed with heart surgery. Your doctor also tells you that your smoking has contributed to the problem and that you really need to quit - starting now. But smoking helps you to relax and when you have tried to quit before, symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, such as cravings for cigarettes, were a real problem. What should you do?

The good news is that new research suggests that having surgery is an excellent time to quit smoking. Studies performed at Mayo Clinic show that smokers do not report additional stress when they stop smoking in the hospital and, in particular, do not experience increased cravings for cigarettes. In fact, up to half of smokers undergoing heart surgery successfully quit after the operation.

The reasons why are not clear but could relate to the fact that patients recovering in the hospital are out of their routine environment so the normal "cues" for smoking, such as having dinner at home, are not present. It could also be due to the fact that pain medications given after surgery may reduce cravings for cigarettes.

There are many reasons to quit, especially before having surgery, as smoking affects the heart by:

  • Increasing blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder.

  • Increasing heart rate - this also makes the heart work harder.

  • Decreasing the amount of oxygen delivered by the blood to the heart (due to the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke).

  • Accelerating the formation of blockages in the arteries of the heart.

  • Damaging the lining of arteries throughout the body.

Perhaps even more important are the long-term benefits of quitting, both to the heart and to overall health. Quitting reduces the chances of heart attacks, stroke, vascular problems and other forms of cardiovascular disease - making it less likely that another operation will be necessary. It also reduces the chances of developing other problems, such as emphysema and cancer.

Still, it can be tough to quit. Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available:

  • Telephone "quit lines" provide free counseling services to all Americans through a toll-free number (1-800-QUIT NOW).

  • Many hospitals also have tobacco treatment specialists who can help, often as an integral part of cardiac rehabilitation programs after surgery.

  • The American Society of Anesthesiologists has a website that provides more information about how to be smoke-free for surgery and how get help (www.LifelinetoModernMedicine.com).