Yesterday a new patient came to see me for neck pain that had been going on for years, and at the end of the consultation they asked me “Is it safe to crack my own neck?”
There is a lot of debate out there about what causes that “cracking” sound and whether doing it repeatedly over time can cause damage to the body.
In this blog post I will go over several common questions I hear about “cracking my own neck.”
What causes that cracking sound?
Currently there are three theories about what causes a loud noise when joints are cavitated or make a popping sound.
1- Gas bubble collapse – as a joint is stretched a change in fluid pressure causes formation of gas bubbles. When the fluid pressure reaches a certain level, the gas bubble is thought to collapse, causing the loud cracking noise.
2- Capsular snap back- most joints are synovial joints, meaning that they are filled with fluid for lubrication and surrounded by a tough joint capsule for protection. As a joint is stretched the capsule follows the synovial fluid further into the joint. At a certain point the capsule can no longer stretch further into the joint and “snaps back”, separating from the synovial fluid, causing the noise.
3- Joint cavity formation – this is similar to gas bubble collapse, where gas formation occurs, but rather than collapsing the cavity remains intact. Here is a video of an MRI performed during a joint cavitation that demonstrates this.
I feel like I have to crack my own neck or back a lot. Why is that?
Many people that I have talked to tell me that they have a stiff or sore neck and they feel that have to crack it multiple times per day. They also mention that it helps for a few minutes, but then goes right back to being stiff or sore.
This is usually due to 2 things, joint Hypo-mobility and Hyper-mobility, meaning that some joints are moving too much and some are moving too little.
If a joint moves too much, it will pop pretty easily, such as when you turn or tilt your head far enough. The body likes mobility and stability, so if it moves too much in a certain way, it will compensate by causing another part to stiffen to prevent too much motion. This usually happens in an adjacent joint above or below the already moving one.
So while you may be able to crack your own neck, it usually is just causing joints that already move enough or too much to cavitate, and not addressing the joints that are fixated or move too little.
Is it safe to crack my own neck?
First off, what is your definition of safe? Is it likely that you will break your neck or cause some severe life threatening injury? Probably not.
Is it possible to cause minor injury to your neck or back from trying to pop it on your own? Yes, it is possible. Just this last week I saw two patients that had been injured from a family member or friend that was trying to help them out and ended up hurting them; one patient has been dealing with the after effects for years now.
All in all, when you crack your own neck, you probably aren’t going to hurt yourself, but in the long run it probably doesn’t do you much good. It is a much safer bet to let a trained professional with years of experience perform a thorough evaluation to find out if you would benefit from an adjustment or manual therapy for any neck pain or stiffness you may be experiencing.
Here’s another blog post you might enjoy…“What is a chiropractor? Part 1”
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P.S. If you or someone you know is suffering from a musculoskeletal complaint and want to try a conservative hands on approach to treatment, come meet with me and get specific help for your specific condition.